Monthly Archives: March 2009

Deliciously Addicting: Didion’s Play It as It Lays

I began reading Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays over Spring Break with the idea that since I have already read so much of her nonfiction, I should sample one of her novels. To say I wasn’t prepared for the emotional onslaught is an understatement.

Her opening line intrigued me. “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.” The book’s main character, Maria, speaks those cryptic lines, foreshadowing the messy disintegration of lives we as readers are about to witness.

The book is comprised of short chapters, each from a particular character’s point of view. Much like my consumption of M&M’s, I found it impossible to stop at just one…or two…or… You get my point.

Play It as It Lays has been called a Hollywood novel, but it’s so much more than that. In fact, although they live in Hollywood and work in the film industry, most of the defining scenes are in the desert. Its blank expanse serves as a clear backdrop for the character’s larger-than-life egos and overbearing personalities.

Vegas also has a pointed appearance, but gambling and drugs certainly aren’t contained within its borders.

“You told me you’d come,” Carter said.
“What for.”
“I want you out there.”
“It’s all gone, you said so yourself.”
“All right,” Carter said. “Stay here and kill yourself.
Something interesting like that.”
Carter and BZ and Helene left for the desert. Maria
found a doctor who would give her barbiturates again,
and in the evenings she drove.

Every character has so many faults, it’s hard to find anyone to blame. They blame each other constantly, pointing fingers left and right. In the beginning Helene says, “She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria.”

In many ways, this is true. But Maria certainly isn’t the only selfish one. Although each character’s actions deserve reproach, I was unable to identify the defining moment of condemnation.

All in all, I highly recommend anyone looking for a quick taste of Didion fiction to pick up Play It as It Lays and experience for yourself its delectable descent toward the point of no return.

Joan Didion will give a reading in McAlister Auditorium at Tulane University on Monday, April 6th, at 7 pm. The event is free and open to the public.


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An Interview with Louise Hornby

As a part of the Joan Didion Reading Series, Professor Louise Hornby delivered her lecture on “Repetition, Time, and Loss in The Year of Magical Thinking.”   As one of Professor Hornby’s former students, I can assure you that the lecture was both engaging and thought-provoking.  If you were unable to attend the event, be sure to read the previous post entitled “Tulane English Professor Dissects Didion’s Philosophy,” where Professor Hornby’s lecture is analyzed in greater depth.

Recently, I was able to ask Professor Hornby some questions about her relationship with Didion’s work and her recent lecture, as well as her feelings about the literary programs Tulane offers.

David Kening: How did you become interested in Joan Didion’s work?

Professor Hornby: Joan Didion is well-known for her writing in California, and I began reading her work when I was in graduate school in Berkeley.  I returned to her recently after I moved from California to New Orleans and started by re-reading her first novel, Run River, which she wrote right after she moved from California to New York.

DK: Of all of her works in various genres, why did you choose to investigate The Year of Magical Thinking?

PH: I don’t really know — I suppose I felt I had something to say about it.  I have read it many times, and saw the theater adaptation performed by Vanessa Redgrave in New York.  I am interested in the idea of magical thinking — in the insane casting of mind over matter — and its relationship to Freud’s conception of grief.

DK: What from The Year of Magical Thinking did you find to be especially interesting?

PH: As I discussed in my talk,  am struck by the use of repetition in this work — by its insistent and pathological return to the narrative event of John Dunne’s death.

DK: What about Didion’s style do you think sets her apart from her peers?  Why is she able to be successful in so many genres when other writers tend to specialize in a specific form?

PH: She has a remarkable and distinct voice, both in her fiction and her non-fiction writing.  Her writing is an act of witnessing — of experiencing and observing — which is marked by a clear and acute subjectivity.

DK: How has Didion’s work influenced your own?  What do you try to emulate in your own writing?

PH: I am not a creative writer myself, so I would be hard pressed to say that she has influenced my writing.  Certainly, her careful prose is remarkable, and I have learned an enormous amount from looking at her sentences and her particular economy of language.

DK: What role do you think the Joan Didion reading Series plays in conjunction with the upcoming event in McAllister Auditorium at Tulane University? Do you the the series has been successful in this role?  Why, or why not?  How can the lecture series be improved in the future, when other writers of similar reputation visit Tulane and New Orleans?

PH: The lecture series provides an academic context and a public forum for Didion’s visit that goes beyond the reputation of the writer.  The series offers a forum for thinking seriously about her writing, generating a set of conversations about the writer’s work in anticipation of her April visit.  The series is an extraordinary opportunity for local high school students and Tulane students to learn more about a contemporary author.  I would love for more Tulane students to attend these talks.

DK: What are you most looking forward to when Joan Didion visits Tulane on April 6?

PH: I admire her work greatly, and am so pleased that she is coming to campus.

Joan Didion’s visit on Monday, April 6, is less than a week away.  Didion will read selections from her work at 7:00 PM in Tulane University’s McAllister Auditorium.  The event is free and open to the public, and doors open at 6:00 PM.  Didion follows Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrisson as an honoree of Tulane’s Great Writers Series, an annual event sponsored by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English.

David Kening

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The White Album: Joan Didion on The 1960’s & 70’s,The Doors, Jaycees and music people

            Finishing Joan Didion’s collection of essays on the 1960’s and 70’s, “The White Album,” I’m reminded of why Didion is one of my, and America’s, favorite writers. Posted below are a few of my hundred-something favorite passages from her collection…

Didion on the bridge of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, California 

            “We put ‘Lay Lady Lay’ on the record player, and ‘Suzanne.’ We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, and in the evenings the smell of Jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows. I made a bolognaise for people who did not eat meat. I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’- this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it- was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969.” p.41

“I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to a stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife.” p.47

On The Doors:

            “The Doors were different, The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex. Break on through, their lyrics said, and Light my fire, and…” p.21

On the Jaycees: 

 “There was a heavy jocularity, the baroque rhetoric of another generation entirely, a kind of poignant attempt to circumnavigate social conventions that had in fact broken down in the twenties. Wives were lovely and forbearing. Getting together for drinks was having a cocktail reception. Rain was liquid sunshine and the choice of a table for dinner was an executive decision. They knew this was a brave new word and they said so.” p.94

On “Music People”:

  “Music people never wanted ordinary drinks. They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat…We would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty…we would go down to U.S.C to see the Living Theater if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette…First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six or more, because music people did not travel in groups of ‘one’ or ‘two.’”p.26

Joan Didion will speak at Tulane University on Monday, April 6th at McAlister Auditorium at 7 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

Jordan Braun 

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Tulane English Professor Dissects Didion’s Psychology

Louise Hornby’s lecture on “Repetition, Time, and Loss in The Year of Magical Thinking” last Tuesday, March 17, marked the second event in the Joan Didion Reading Series. Over 30 local high school students attended, as well as Tulane students and faculty, and members from the community. The next, and last, event before Didion’s visit to campus is a roundtable discussion to be held on Wednesday, April 1, at 6 pm in Cudd Hall.

Professor Hornby emphasized the method by which Didion continuously re-begins her memoir in order to avoid complete feelings of loss; The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the year following the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. By refusing to finish the narrative that starts the night John dies, Didion convinces herself that she could have done something to save him; so that her memory becomes the ever-shifting filter through which she interprets the events of that night, attempting to manipulate (and re-manipulate) facts to change their final outcome. It is not until she receives an autopsy nine months later that she discovers that John “appeared to (or did) experience…a sudden massive coronary event,” and realizes the impossibility of saving him (6). This causes a disturbance in Didion’s magical thinking, by which Didion’s desires for the past to deliver a different future are dismantled.

Infusing Freud’s ideas from Mourning and Melancholia (1915) into her discussion, Professor Hornby explored the psychological functions of Didion’s narrative. If mourning is the successful transferal of attachment to a lost object onto a new object, then melancholia affirms mourning as an end in and of itself, whereby the grieving individual cannot abdicate her love for the lost object. That is, mourning is healthily linear, whereas melancholia is pathologically cyclical. Didion, absolutely, is melancholic throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, and it is not until she accepts that John is not coming back–that she cannot and never could bring him back–that she is able to relinquish her attachment to his physical presence. As Hornby put it, she ceases to “preserve within herself the externally-lost object,” admitting finally her inability to re-create a narrative that concludes with his physical return; she accomplishes a “necessary failure.” Only then is she able to begin telling the story of her life as an individual expressing the inclinations of “I”, rather than through the lens of her coupling with John, through the dangerously present “we” (9).

Joan Didion will read selections from her work on Monday, April 6, at 7 pm in McAlister Auditorium. Doors open at 6:00, and the event is free and open to the public. Didion’s visit commemorates the continuation of the annual Great Writers Series, sponsored by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English; past honorees include Salman Rushdie and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.

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In Class With Billy Collins

Thanks to the Creative Writing Fund and the Department of English at Tulane, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins was able to visit a creative writing class before his reading in the Poet Laureate Series. It was an ideal opportunity to meet the author I’ve read much of the past few years.

I’ve always been struck by certain features that govern his pieces, such as accessibility, the musicality, and a general complacency of the voice, which I assumed Collins must have been aware of when titling a poem: “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakely’s Version Of ‘Three Blind Mice”. I developed a few preconceived opinions of his personality as a result and I’m not ashamed to admit that I unknowingly fell into a trap I think some critics make. That is, conflating the speaker of his poems, the persona of Billy Collins, with the author himself. It’s a juvenile assumption but in the case of Mr. Collins, and his ‘persona’, I still don’t believe the distance between the two of them is that far, but it’s significant to note nonetheless.

During the class discussion Mr. Collins handled questions on the simplicity of his poems with confidence and addressed issues surrounding the voice of his poetry. He was comfortable stating he had no intentions of developing. He explained that he has constructed the persona of his poetry throughout the span of his career and that this voice is convenient for the style of poems he writes. He feels no need to change.

What blew me away about Mr. Collins was the extent to which he has accepted this position. Despite what any critic wants to say about his work, one cannot simply deny the powerful impact he has had, and continues to exert, on the proliferation of poetry. Collins knows his audience and keeps them in mind constantly.

He has become a kind of alternative to what the public may have viewed as poetry, rebelling against the need for complexity and instead looking to meet his audience halfway. His passion for and knowledge of the tradition of poetry is indisputable and he writes from a place of joy in the act of composition, not from melancholia or a need to confuse.

On Monday evening at Tulane in McAlister Auditorium close to one thousand people attended his reading, according to a New Wave estimation. Mr. Collins own unique style and his goal to be understood by anyone whether or not they have knowledge of poetry is undoubtedly the cause of his enormous success.

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The Joan Didion Reading Series: Writing with Confusion and The California Conundrum

            The Joan Didion Reading Series was kicked off last Tuesday with Tulane English Professor Michelle Kohler’s lecture “Where She Was From: Joan Didion and the Conundrum of Place.” The series will continue on March 17th and again on April 1st, in anticipation of Joan Didion’s appearance on April 6th, as part of Tulane University’s Great Writers Series.

            In her lecture, Professor Kohler discusses Didion’s “Where I Was From,” as a story of things that “do not add up.” As the author herself puts it, it is “The California Conundrum;” Manifest Destiny, the mecca of Liberty, capitalism, the story of a few powerful individuals. Didion’s work is an examination of what Professor Kohler refers to as “one’s own place,” and claims in the end is an ultimately impossible task.

            Kohler meditates on Didion’s voice throughout the novel, as confused, “muddled,” sorting, exploring. The author poses riddles, and makes the conscious decision to confuse, not to inform. Didion’s knowledge of California can never be whole, it seems, because she is making judgments and observations from a biased angle, she cannot see clearly because she is amidst it all. As Didion writes,

“Such stories are artlessly told. There survives in their repetition a problematic elision or inflation, a narrative flaw, a problem with point of view: the actual observer, or camera eye, is oftern hard to locate” (p. 30)

        Kohler references Emerson and the famous transparent eyeball, as evidence of our inability to have, or in Joan Didion’s case write with, an absolute view of our own environment. She argues that, “without an omniscient narrator we are left with only romantic claims.” And romantic claims as they may be, alive and well in Didion’s “muddled” work are countless moments of her trademark, razor-sharp clarity.

            By the end of the lecture, we are left with the question at the heart of Didion’s work: can we ever really know the place we are from? The title alone, “Where I Was From,” identifies an uncertainty that exists within the relationship between our identities and our roots, our past and our present. And if we know anything about Didion, we know that she leaves California and joins the many that continue the story of their lives in New York City. My opinion? We can never really know a place until we have left it

        The Joan Didion Reading Series will continue on March 17th at noon and April 1st at 6 pm in Tulane University’s Cudd Hall. Joan Didion will speak at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium on Monday, April 6th at 7 pm. Both events are free and open to the public. We hope to see you all there!

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Claire Messud: If You Don’t Know Her, You Should

Claire Messud, the current Zale Writer-In-Residence at Tulane University, gave a reading this past Monday, March 9th, from her novel The Emperor’s Children. She stayed to sign books and chat after her reading, more than willing to talk with anyone and everyone, and doing so with a wide smile. On Thursday evening, Professor Paula Morris interviewed her, asking questions about her writing, and how she came to be a novelist.
Born in Toulon, France, Messud is the daughter of a French-Algerian and his Canadian wife. Her interest in her Algerian heritage is reflected in her 1999 novel The Last Life, which tells the story of 3 generations of a French-Algerian family. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Sagesse, the story is at times poignant and precise, imbued with distinct voices for each of its characters. As for the author’s voice, Messud speaks softly, almost timidly, and corrects herself as she talks. She writes by hand, on graph paper, with an ultrafine-tipped pen, and types portions of her manuscripts as she progresses.

One of the things that stands out about Messud’s novels is her ability to bring characters to life, whether they are lovable, despicable, or somewhere on the hazy middle ground—and Messud’s characters are almost always on that middle ground. In an earlier interview, Messud said, “I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice.” After reading The Emperor’s Children, and currently being in the middle of The Last Life, I and other creative writing students wanted to know how Messud crafted her characters (and how she kept them straight, as there are at least five main characters and countless supporting cast). In her interview with Paula Morris, Messud said that she chooses the point of view of her novels before she begins writing. She “gets to know” the characters more as she writes, and sometimes they end up being different people. Messud doesn’t believe that books must always have a distinct message, saying she is “resistant to a utilitarian notion of art.”

On writing and becoming a writer, Messud points out that “almost anything will get in the way of writing. And if you let it, it will take up all the room writing would occupy.” Messud would know—she balances her writing with her family, two children and a husband. She writes carefully, her precision embodied in both her chosen method of pen and paper and in her thoughtful, arching sentences. Each of her books, with the exception of her two novellas, The Hunters, has taken around four years to write.

When talking to Claire Messud, one gets the impression of an author who writes because she loves people and what they do, whether their actions are benevolent or not. There’s no question that Messud succeeds in capturing reality within her fiction. Her flair for sentence-crafting and acute knowledge of her characters make reading her work a true pleasure— one that I highly recommend to you.

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