Saturday, January 01, 2011

Reading group: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West and Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

Mark suggested comparing these two novels which deal with the American Dream as experienced by the players at its Hollywood heart, the West dealing with Hollywood's very early days and the Didion with a period, the late 60s, when it had become characterised by emptiness and ennui.

This was a large meeting (very cosy under Mark's huge Christmas tree and candle-lit mantelpiece), but it turned out that only four of us had managed to get hold of the Didion, so the communal discussion focused on West's The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, it concerns Tod Hackett, an artist who has been headhunted as a Hollywood set and costume designer, but who retains an objective eye on the illusions and pretensions of the place and its inhabitants, and plans a huge Biblical-type painting in which the hordes fly from a Hollywood on fire. To this end, he 'collects' characters to include in the painting - the would-be starlet and prostitute Faye (after whom, while understanding her shallowness, he lusts), her ex-music-hall-entertainer and now bit-player father Harry, the depraved wheeling-dealing dwarf Abe Kusich, the cowboy extra, the insufferable child actor and his unpleasantly pushy mother, and Homer Simpson, the awkward outsider who becomes unsuitably entangled with the rest of them, and thus, although sent there by his doctor for his health, one of those who in Tod's view (and that of the third-person narration) have 'come here to die'. The novel consists largely of a series of tableaux or set-pieces in which each of these specific Hollywood types reveals his or her situation and personality, but culminates in a stampede fueled by mass disappointment and resentment, echoing the concept of Tod's painting, and ending indeed in a death.

Those present were unanimous in liking the book. While it was clearly of mainly historical interest, depicting a very specific moment in Hollywood's history - a time when the countryside was still nearby and Hollywood still a place of hope, however illusory - the book was also prescient in envisioning its future. Everyone relished the vivid depiction of the characters, and the satirical narrative viewpoint. People spent some time recounting what they'd liked: the descriptions of people constantly dressed as if playing parts, the houses designed like fairytale film sets, the fact that Faye and Harry never stopped acting - Harry acting and putting on a show even as he is dying, a moment that Trevor really relished.

There were one or two criticisms: several people found boring a long cock-fighting scene, and couldn't see the point of it (someone suggested that the injured bird constantly flinging itself into the path of its aggressor was symbolic of the Hollywood hopefuls). Ann pointed out that the third-person narrative is a little uncertain: initially it is established in Tod's viewpoint, but it switches suddenly to that of Homer and then back again, at least twice. Trevor said he thought this was fine, but Ann, John, Mark and I felt that it wasn't done in a way that seemed entirely controlled. It was generally agreed that while enjoyable and notable for its comment on the Hollywood of the time, the novel lacked the linguistic and structural integrity of its contemporary, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (which we discussed previously).

The four of us who'd read Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays - Ann, Mark, John and I - then talked to the group about it. It concerns Maria, a beautiful Hollywood actress married to the once-promising film director who gave her her first break (a film in which, significantly, she played the victim of a gang rape). The book begins with her ruminations in the psychiatric hospital where she is now a patient and then switches back to the events that led her there. It's a story of drugs, alcohol and wife-swapping, and an amorphous sense of failure: at its start Maria's marriage to Carter is in trouble, though in no clear-cut way - the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her...) - and their small daughter Kate is incarcerated in some kind of hospital for an unspecified neural condition. Maria is now finding it hard to get work: ...trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Grieving Carter who has absented himself filming in the arid Nevada desert, and conducting a secret affair with the married and thus rarely accessible Les Goodwin, Maria is already unhinged, spending her days endlessly driving the Los Angeles freeways. The crunch point comes when she discovers she is pregnant and the child could be Les Goodwin's. Carter issues an ultimatum: unless she has an abortion he will take custody of Kate. From this point on Maria becomes an impotent puppet in other people's plans, as the horrific abortion is arranged for her yet Carter drifts further away, and as Les Goodwin drifts away too, preserving his marriage.

All four of us were completely bowled over by this book, by its evocation of a cultural ethos and of Maria's state of mind via spare, rhythmic prose and short sections providing vivid and telling filmic glimpses. As Ann said, there's so much white space on the pages and what Didion doesn't say is as important as what she does. To the surprise of the others, we four said that we found it the far superior book.

One of the great ways that this book differs from the West is in its internal, psychological nature. It's an anatomisation of the deeply psychological effects of a world in which amorality rules, and where there is no acknowledgment of consequence and cause and effect. Nothing applies, says Maria at the start of the novel: To look for "reasons" is beside the point. One may as well simply accept the chips where they fall, 'play it as it lays'. It is an attitude she has been forced to adopt, but, ironically, she goes on - only because she has been asked to by her carers, she says - to describe a childhood and background steeped in a loss likely to induce the kind of yearning that Hollywood famously encourages yet thwarts. Two significant moments in the novel indicate the depth of the sense of loss and consequence she is forced to repress. Post abortion, Maria and Les Goodwin manage a rendezvous, but it is pervaded by a sadness signaling the end of their liaison. On the drive back they convince themselves that the causes were circumstantial: They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point [her aborted child] in a bedroom in Encino. Towards the end of the novel Maria is told by BZ, the husband of her friend Helene, that Carter is sleeping with Helene. Presumably in response to Maria's facial expression, BZ comments that she's 'faking herself' if she cares, if it makes a difference who is sleeping with whom. Eventually Maria assents, but not before she has confessed: 'It makes a difference to me.' And subsequent events - the events that will end in Maria's institutionalisation - indicate that BZ too is more affected than he will admit.

In his introduction to the American edition we all had, David Thomson suggests that there is a flaw in the novel, taking his cue from a Paris Review interview in which Didion confessed to a prior indecision about whether to tell the story in the first or third person, finally plumping for first person for the present-day frame and an intimate third person for the backstory. He suggests that the more insightful institutionalised first-person Maria is closer to the author than the passive Maria of the third-person backstory, and sees in this a discrepancy. Personally, I disagree that this is a discrepancy (and think this shows the dangers of writers talking publicly about the trials of their process). It seems to me that the Maria of the first-person frame is in the process of freeing herself from the psychology of the backstory. She is no longer drugged; she is putting that past behind her: she refuses to see those past players when they visit her. And, while she denies the usefulness of looking back on the past for 'reasons', glance back at that past she does, at which it unfurls in all its cause-and-effect vividness. Insightfully, Thomson points out that the novel opens up the nature of film narrative and what the concentration on exteriors does in the way of Novocain-ing internal things. I would add that it is also paradoxically an enactment of the potential healing power of story.

The four of us were so enthusiastic about this book that others immediately wanted to borrow it, but when I asked for my copy back from Jenny in order to write this report, she said that it hadn't grabbed her: she'd enjoyed what she'd read (about half of it) but hadn't felt compelled to go on with it and had fancied reading 'something trashy', the latest Le Carre, instead.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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