Somebody holds the door open for Lily in a hardware store, and she thinks she has a very complex situation on her hands.Run River by Joan Didion
Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
I read Run River (1963) and Play It As It Lays (1970) back to back. Then I tried to remember what I had once read Zadie Smith saying about Didion’s fiction. I recall two things: (1) it was high praise; (2) it was in the days when my lunch hour used to take me to the Waterstones on Piccadilly pretty much every day and I would run up & down its art deco staircase high with the freedom of being out of the office, the wooden handrail smooth under my loose grip. These two points not being much to go on (giving me only Zadie Smith circa the time of On Beauty; myself eating sandwiches in St James’s Square, reading reviews and interviews with Smith that I’d surreptitiously printed out at work), I tried Google. And Google led me full circle, back to myself saying that I thought I remembered Zadie Smith saying something about Didion’s fiction and Denise saying that she couldn’t read two Didion books in a row. Something about which I would probably now concur. One is good. Two is too many.
But two in a row was interesting to see how she took many of the same themes and motifs — California (obviously), parents dying in car wrecks, an inherrited tendency to migraine, a sad marriage, infidelity, abortion, suicide, the gradual going bad of everything and everyone — and first layed them out in the conventional narrative of Run River before turning these same elements in Play It As It Lays into a novel as stripped down as a novel can be.
Recommended. But — and this is a note to my future Googling self as much as to anyone else –one at a time.
Further reading: “Didion’s idea seems radical in its simplicity: not to write what you know but write because you don’t. Not to bring an understanding to the page, but to arrive at it there.” Ashley Farmer on Didion at Literary Mothers | “When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat by Echo Park Lake and read Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It as It Lays twice. You have to be a special kind of depressive to read this book more than once, especially more than once back to back.” Alice Bolin on Joan Didion and Los Angeles at The Believer.