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Joan Didion: Run River / Slouching Towards Bethlehem / Play It As It Lays…

by Joan Didion

Other authors: David L. Ulin (Editor)

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401472,833 (3)None
"Joan Didion's influence on postwar American letters is undeniable. Whether writing fiction, memoir, or trailblazing journalism, her gifts for narrative and dialogue, and her intimate but detached authorial persona, have won her legions of readers and admirers. Now Library of America launches its multi-volume edition of Didion's collected writings, prepared in consultation with the author, that brings together her fiction and nonfiction for the first time. Collected in this first volume are Didion's five iconic books from the 1960s and 1970s: Run River, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The White Album. Whether writing about countercultural San Francisco, the Las Vegas wedding industry, Lucille Miller, Charles Manson, or the shopping mall, Didion achieves a wonderful negative sublimity without condemning her subjects or condescending to her readers. Chiefly about California, these books display Didion's genius for finding exactly the right language and tone to capture America's broken twilight landscape at a moment of headlong conflict and change." -- $c Provided by publisher.… (more)

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Someone, at one time, probably in some obscure conversation about books, recommended I read "Play it as it Lays". It hardly seemed worth it to purchase the brief novella, so I ended up buying this compilation of Didion's works.

Below is the review of "Play It As It Lays" and "Run River" but by the time I finished those two stories I had little desire to read the rest...

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS

In this short novella Joan Didion outdoes herself in bleak realism. But why not? A bleak hopeless aura strongly pervades all her writing. She is reportedly an extremely intelligent woman but is known to have lived a life of eternal depression and pessimism. Have you ever heard Peggy Lee’s song, “Is that all there is?” Well, the events of the song are irrelevant, but the despondent ennui expressed by Peggy Lee excellently exemplifies the theme of "Play it as it Lays".

It is a story that depicts the worst aspects of Hollywood. "Play it as it Lays" captures the horror of trying to survive in the entertainment industry.

Told in a stream of conscious narrative, the thirty-one-year-old aspiring actress, Maria Wyeth ponders on her search for stardom and fame. The competition is fierce and the fleeting rewards are merely an illusion. Be prepared for infidelity and partner swapping, abortions, and orgies… narcissistic personalities – both men and women, using whatever means required in the chase for fame and fortune. Sometimes their unscrupulous behavior serves no other purpose than to sooth their bruised egos, and relieve the boredom of mundane routines.

Joan Didion’s claim to fame was in writing “new journalism” for magazines including Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The New York Times. She also wrote the award-winning Memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking". She was an inspiration for the women’s movement in the 1960s.

Joan Didion is an excellent writer, and her fictional stories are captivating. Published in 1970, I imagine this fine bit of prose was quite spellbinding in its time, but with the real live twenty-first century scandals coming out of Hollywood for the past 20 years, escalating with the MeToo Movement, Play it as it Lays is now just mildly sensational and somewhat redundant. However, if you want to read just one of Joan Didion’s novels, to experience the literary quality and get a taste of her unique “realism” style, this is a perfect example. Rated 4 Stars

RUN RIVER

Joan Didion dishes out fiction that is hard to digest. Perhaps a product of the times – she wrote this novel during the early 1960s, before women were empowered to live independent productive lives. Her fiction is dark and depressing.

This was Joan Didion’s first novel, published when she was twenty-nine years old. She subsequently because an icon for the women’s movement in the 1960s. She brings clarity and mature understanding of life’s misfortunes to the reader. However, I’m not quite sure how she inspired women’s liberation. Unless it was leading by example of what never to do in life.

"Run River" takes place in California. Centered around the lives of Everett and Lily McClellan – childhood friends and now husband and wife. The novel begins with a murder – and then drops back in time and as the story unfolds, we witness Lily as she adapts to married life, motherhood, and the changing environment in her local region of California.

In the 1950s and early 60s marriage was expected of all young women. If they didn’t marry by a certain age they were referred to in a derogatory label as an “old maid”. Ultimately this desperation for marriage led to incompatible partners, unhappy marriages, and lives of misery. Who’s to say it was the man’s fault. He could have been just as disappointed as the woman, but in "Run River" it is Lily’s pain we are focused on. In fact, there is not one happy woman in the entire novel, other than Lily’s aging mother who was an old-school subservient wife and partner – until her husband’s untimely death. And even after that she seemed totally content and appreciative of the good life she had lived. I guess the women’s libbers missed that point.

Didion illustrates it is a universal problem that times change, neighborhoods change, and customs change. The native residents of any rural area in America were naturally critical of new-comers. Especially if those invading their back yards were opportunists, real estate developers, and socially pretentious.

"Run River" is about all this – and more. But the thing that stands out in my mind the most is the incessant negative spin- the assumption that faced with a helpless, or hopeless situation, all women of that era would always self-destruct. And the implication that if a young girl idolized her father, she would be mentally handicapped trying to adjust to dating and marriage. And finally, in line with Joan Didion’s philosophy of Existentialism, all the characters selfishly, and irrationally acted ugly and repulsive, simply because it was their ‘human nature’. Not that I was expecting a fairy tale, but it would have been nice to conclude with a shred of optimism. Rated 3 Stars ( )
  LadyLo | Jun 16, 2020 |
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Ulin, David L.Editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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"Joan Didion's influence on postwar American letters is undeniable. Whether writing fiction, memoir, or trailblazing journalism, her gifts for narrative and dialogue, and her intimate but detached authorial persona, have won her legions of readers and admirers. Now Library of America launches its multi-volume edition of Didion's collected writings, prepared in consultation with the author, that brings together her fiction and nonfiction for the first time. Collected in this first volume are Didion's five iconic books from the 1960s and 1970s: Run River, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and The White Album. Whether writing about countercultural San Francisco, the Las Vegas wedding industry, Lucille Miller, Charles Manson, or the shopping mall, Didion achieves a wonderful negative sublimity without condemning her subjects or condescending to her readers. Chiefly about California, these books display Didion's genius for finding exactly the right language and tone to capture America's broken twilight landscape at a moment of headlong conflict and change." -- $c Provided by publisher.

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