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Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion – Essay

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse, compare and contrast the representation and interrogation of American culture in an era of post-modernity, considering, in so doing, the writers’ styles, techniques and choice of theme.

Maria represents modern

America: self indulgent, shallow, self-harming but regretting a loss that she engineered herself. The abortion symbolises the loss of traditional values, that are replaced by selfish and uncaring attitudes, exemplified by Maria and the other main characters in Play It As It Lays.

In A&P Sammy represents those trying to break out of a fixed dominant culture of capitalism, powered by consumerism and work. He wants to be free, to live the perfect consumer life. Sammy’s character fantasises about parties that Maria is likely to attend, he would probably envy Carter’s life but not Maria’s.

Post-modernism describes a broad change in attitudes and thinking which began in the early part of the twentieth century. Postmodern thinker Jean-François Lyotard (1984) believed Postmodernity represented the end of the process of modernity, leading to quicker cultural change. “Post-modern” refers to a belief in the collapse of absolute truth or identities and “grand narratives.” These would include the Bible, Koran and Maos Red Book. Jean Baudrillard (1998) argues in a philosophical treatise, Simulacra and Simulation that society substitutes all reality and meaning for symbols and signs and what we know as real is a simulation. The simulacra are the signs of culture and media creating the “reality” that we perceive. Society becomes overwhelmed with imagery, man made sounds, media and advertising. This simulacrum eventually becomes hyperreal, more real than real, presupposing reality. Apathy and misery break down Nietsche’s feeling of ressentiment (a state of repressed feeling and desire which generate of values.) Our misconceptions of reality shaped by simulacra create our values, which are thus distorted. Hollywood and

Las Vegas deal in imagery and copies or representations of things, or simulations. Play It As It Lays is set in Hollywood,

Las Vegas and the Desert, all of which are shown to be empty in different ways. Maria, Carter, BZ, Helene and the actor, with others, create artificial reality. Baudrillard (1998) would say they are simulacra. If so, they are also the victims of suppressed ressentiment. For example Maria is devoid of feeling and BZ kills himself. In A&P, the environment is also artificial, it is a sales environment, fluorescent light, air-conditioning, images of goods, advertising and packaging are all aiming to influence behaviour by making a visitor buy things they may not need or want.

Thematically throughout the text Didion asks us to consider life in an era of post modernity. What if our life was a void of artificiality, lacking in morals, where recreational drugs are the norm, conversations and beliefs are vacuous and where people had no feelings for each other? Maria inhabits this world symbolising American post-modern attitudes. In A&P Sammy imagines the life that three women live, he is so drawn to this illusory life that he quits his job to go and find it. We read hints of Maria’s inner self. The redeemable part of her character and America Maria tells us that causing the emptiness is the abortion. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘There’s no point.’ ‘No point in what.’ ‘No point in our doing any of those things.’ He looked at her for a long while. ‘Later,’ he said then. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘It’s all right.’ (p.133)
The abortion symbolises the loss of values that have been replace by simulacra. The extract below refers to it obliquely:
They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino.”(p. 133)Maria by the end of the book is in complete despair and despondent. In a very short chapter, entirely in italics to emphasise it is Maria speaking, chapter eighty two shows that Maria is looking ahead to a simple life canning fruit, but acknowledging her past misery and her problem with “as it was”.“I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing.’“(p.209)

This emptiness is reflected in the images of the desert. By chapter eighty four, Maria is observing closely small incidents. A hummingbird flying, coins falling in water and sunlight. Maria visualises like a film, in short scenes, becoming artificial, confirming her status as simulacra and victim of simulation.

Sammy as a character is not as developed, the length of the piece does not allow it. We learn of his misogyny but are not shown the things that really move him, other than his desire for a different life. His perception of “Queenie’s” life can only be based on what he has seen and read or heard, Baudrillard’s simulacra.

Play It as It Lays in its style reflects post modernist thinking; replacing the grand narrative with smaller narratives. A&P must make a point concisely. Economy of language, precision of imagery and dialogue is fundamental to its success. Updike demonstrates care and precision in his use of language and grammar, in his use of quotation marks in A&P. For example:

The girls, and who would blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.

Sammy quitting is the significant event in the story; he has used quotation marks to emphasise it in the middle of a longer sentence. Updike wants us to read closely. Showing the reader the feelings of a young man spontaneous but uncertain.Play it as it lays employs a cinematic style, short scenes. The chapters are not always in sequence, films are not shot sequentially. In many chapters, the style is like a script. Short chapters, for example chapter forty, suggest life is a random set of scenes, no purpose or great plan. This chapter is mainly dialogue; the purpose to demonstrate a spontaneous, privileged and self-indulgent life and Maria controlled by BZ. Like a scene in a script. Imitating

Hollywood and showing the shallowness of characters. Chapter twenty six shows her asserting herself, using the word “very” repeatedly shows she can do virtually whatever she wishes whenever she wants with no consequences. Didion explores the effect of a nakedly capitalist, consumerist and privileged environment, where inhabitants do not interact on any emotional level, on Maria. The defining moment in the book is the pregnancy and abortion, which changes her life and makes it mean nothing.

The male characters have no genuine feeling for her and often hurt her, like Carter, who made her get the abortion. The abortion is central to the character’s thinking and actions thereafter. It surfaces in her conscious when pushed there by her subconscious, depicted in dreams, which get progressively worse. Maria regrets the abortion and explores guilt. The hypnotist sessions are examples. She seeks to regress to her foetal state. When asked if she can remember is evasive and talks about traffic. Does she know her foetus was aware? She hints at it when expressing concern at what happened to it and grieves for it. The dreams are also simulations, the hypnotism seeking to recreate as a memory an existence is a simulacra. She dwells on it throughout the book:

“ …she bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it. (p.114)

This passage shows us that she believes it to have been a baby. She then tries to diminish this by referring to it as tissue. She has trouble with “as it was” because of this event.

Simulation is symbolised by the drugs and alcohol consumed that influence her dreams, her perception of reality and distort her values. The theme of distortion, the tools that are available to alter perception, and thus reality, runs throughout the book. Sleeping pills, tranquilisers, cannabis, alcohol and tobacco are all used. An unseen third person narrates the story. The reliability of the information provided by the narrator may be questionable when Maria provides it to the narrator. She is like a person with no ressentiment.

The protagonist in A&P is a man. Didion is a woman but Maria is not portrayed sympathetically. She does something many may disagree with, has an abortion. Sammy on the other hand is a young, attractive, heterosexual modern day knight in shining armour. He makes a sacrifice on behalf of three damsels in distress. A hollow gesture, it is a symbolic protest against consumerism, the values and rules that accompany it. The store represents

America, the manager the government, the sheep or shoppers are the people. Sammy rejects this society, symbolising youthful rebellion, which is often shallow and short-lived. He longs for the life that he imagines “Queenie” and her friends live. Imagining that life, informed by what he has seen or read in the media, or film, or heard on the radio. Simulacra, he has no idea of what her life is really like.

Sammy is a hero, albeit misogynistic. In his consideration of the three women, Sammy dwells on their physical attributes and attractiveness in a lingering manner. The reader gets the sense of ogling and scrutinising objects of desire rather than human beings. The descriptions are long and detailed, this contrasts with the descriptions of older women which are very brief. He gives the most attractive one a name, “Queenie”. She is the queen, the most beautiful. He judges women purely by appearance.Maria is a character with whom many readers would not identify and toward who would have difficulty feeling any sympathy. She is promiscuous and does not even apologise to Carter for being pregnant with possibly another man’s child. Abortion at the time the story is set was at the cutting edge of liberal and modern thinking, illegal and unacceptable in many states. Casual sex was also an emerging pastime and not widely approved of. Maria is an anti-hero. Many modern anti-heroes encapsulate the rejection of traditional values; they are reckless and self destruct. Maria does this here. There is no redemption or success for Maria. She is self destructive and reckless repeatedly, taking drugs, confronting car thieves and sex with strangers. Sammy also, in his decision to quit the store, but is portrayed more positively and humorously than Maria. There is no grand gesture from her, just nihilism followed by a retreat into hospital. She is hiding from a reality that she has only imagined. In the last chapter she tells us that “On the whole I talk to no one.” (p213). A&P’s theme considers transition to adulthood. Acting or thinking differently from immediate family, friends or colleagues, possibly disappointing or alienating them. The change is profound for Sammy. He is 19, finished school, bored and working. The girls unwittingly make him think he may miss out unless he asserts himself. His parents helped Sammy get the job. He lives at home in the environment his parents created. He is working class, implied by his memories of parties at his parents’ home: lemonade for the neighbours, Schlitz in tall glasses if the party is more sophisticated. He imagines well-dressed people eating gourmet snacks and sipping exotic drinks from frosted glasses, he longs for the girls, especially “Queenie”. Sammy rejects his role quitting his job and removing the class uniform asserting his individual identity, not his parents’ or A&P’s. Rejecting Stokesie’s life, of being trapped, he is a shallow character who sees women as objects, feeling sorry for a man who has a relationship, implying that he wishes only to use women. He gives lengthy descriptions of the three single and young women but older and married women with children are dismissed as “witches” or “marrieds”. His parents’ think what happened was sad. At the end of the story, Sammy knows how hard the world will be from now on. He does not think it sad though. Symbolising freedom, individuality and sexual liberation are “Queenie” and her friends. Wealthier, younger, attractive and wearing fewer clothes than an average shopper does. The manager, representing the government, chides them for being different. “ “We are decent,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A&P must look pretty crummy ” .

Unwritten and little spoken about standards of decency are at issue. Queenie is flaunting this code in front of the A&P manager. Petty rules made by Government are represented here.

Maria fails to have meaningful lasting relationships, it is not clear if this is her choice. Sammy does not want a relationship. All of the men Maria deal with are powerful or successful, Carter, BZ and the actor with the Ferrari. They all abuse or use her. On the other hand, like BZ, perceive her to be her screen persona that he then falls in love with. Showing the destructive power and futility of such simulacra, he kills himself. This incident shows how desensitized and remote from the pain of others Maria has become to hide her own interior pain. She has no values and has lost all ressentiment. Men view her as an object, for their own gratification. They have money and power, so can and do use her. Sammy can only express a misogynistic view of women and make a futile and empty gesture. He cannot act on his misogyny, like BZ and Carter. No women have any intelligence for Sammy; they are pure objects, to satisfy the “male gaze”. Updike shows us this attitude concisely:

“You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)…”

The manager insults the three girls openly and without a second thought and so they leave. This is a minor incident but demonstrates patriarchal power.

Didion exposes this power naked and raw, dragging the reader into a heartless male dominated artificial world. She uses the environment of the desert to show us the emptiness that Maria feels. With Hollywood and

Las Vegas she shows us the emptiness of post modern humanity and the effect it has on victims like Maria and Kate. Updike shows us in an understated, light hearted and humorous style the power of men, capitalism and the power of dreams to influence behaviour.

Bibliography Updike, J. “A&P.” 2004, Literature, A Portable Anthology. Ed. Janet Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl and Pete Schakel.

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Didion, J., 1970, Play It As It Lays.

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Foust, Ronald. “Family Romance and the Image of Woman’s Fate in Play It as It Lays.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 5.1-2 (Mar 1984): 43-54.

Wolff, C. G. “Play It As It Lays: Didion and the Diver Heroine.” Contemporary Literature 24.4 (Wint 1983): (pp. 480-495.)

Bush, M L, 1984, The Use of Narrative Devices In the Fiction of Joan Didion.




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