Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Praying in Common

Joan Didion is my favorite female author. While reading a Didion book I often think she's the best writer in English that I've read. When reading a DeLillo book she can fall back to second. Bret Easton Ellis is my favorite, but he's influenced by both DeLillo and Didion and you can feel a sort of authenticity to their work that I think makes their writing stronger, if not for me more personally enjoyable. This is the debriefing of A Book of Common Prayer, Didion's third, but it also acts as a commentary on all the Didion I've read (Play It as It Lays,  Democracy, and The Year of Magical Thinking). After the jump, I plan to consider what a bibliography is supposed to look like, what we want from novels, and what writing novels is like.

Joan Didion writes the same book over and over. So does Don DeLillo. So does every great writer, I might make the claim. A part of reading works by such people is comparing against their previous work. It's recognizing characters now masquerading under new names and slightly changed everything. This where you get "theme." Where you get your own personal section in Wikipedia discussing your "themes." Of course Chuck Palahniuk and his sort can have a place on their Wiki page to discuss "writing style" but that's because Palahniuk is only continuous in his style. His themes are all over the place, which he pays for in a lot of hit and miss. A book like Survivor or Lullaby can be really quite good but you know he won't write another book like this, although you wish he would. Didion and DeLillo both know what to change and what to stay the same. The reading experience doesn't change book-to-book, you have to learn a new set of names and a new set of "details," but if you went all cut-up technique on either oeuvre you could still create good books. It's all going to mesh in together very well.

It seems that here, although this seems like an already unnecessarily long opening to a piece on a specific book, I should still add that this isn't a universal belief. A lot of people (or some people...I'm assuming it's a lot) disagree with me. They criticize Franzen for writing Freedom because "it's the same book as The Corrections" and maybe it is (I haven't read The Corrections), but I don't think this would bother me. They insult every Radiohead album that isn't Kid A because it's "too familiar," as if novelty was the sole judge for music. They criticize Point Omega because it's too much of what DeLillo has already written, or rather they do so as if novelty were the sole judge of novels. (Sorry, had to.) I don't mean to mock these opinions simply because I am introducing them comically. They are just as good as mine, which is why I feel the need to note them.

But to get to Didion. What one first realizes about any Didion book is her place as author. In Play It as It Lays she plays two traditional roles, scripting some character-narrated bits, as well as portraying the story in a  limited omniscient focused on the female lead. David Thomson's introduction in my copy of the book quotes Didion from her interview in The Paris Review as having said this about the point of view:
I wanted to make it all first person, but I wasn't good enough to maintain a first. There were tricks I didn't know. So I began playing with a close third person, just to get something down. By a "close third" I mean not an omniscient third but a third very close to the mind of the character. Suddenly one night I realized that I had some first person and some third person and that I was going to have to go with both, or just not write a book at all. I was scared.
This could be fairly irrelevant to a discussion of a Didion book other than Play It as It Lays, if it weren't for the presence of the quote haunting her other novels. Maria, the main character of the novel, gives us the classic Didion-esque idea, "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask." From here we can understand Maria as the main character of the novel. Even having not picked up Othello until after reading the book, the quote still got to me. It sticks with you. The greatest part of it being that a solid question to ask of the play is "Is Iago evil?," a question that I do think some people would be incapable of understanding.

However, Maria, quickly becomes a character in third person, that of the "close third" Didion names. In Democracy, which is her fifth novel, but the one I read next, Didion is the narrator, but the story is still essentially told in the same way. The main character of Democracy, it could be argued, is Inez Victor. Didion's presence in the novel seems to be simply one of her "tricks." It allows for an interesting amount of reflection on the story that cannot be seen in Maria's narrative, allowing for the story to be much more global in shape. However, even if two points make a line, a connection between two books does not make a career-long interest for a writer.

Let us then (finally) consider A Book of Common Prayer. The main character of the novel is once again not the narrator. Grace Strasser-Mendana gives us the story of Charlotte Douglas. Grace can be taken as a fictionalized version of Didion herself, although I do not mean biographically (of which I have no evidence of connections during the time of writing). While it seems a bad habit to get into, calling a character's emotions, feelings, or understandings those of the writer (calling Joseph Conrad racist for example), I do believe it holds true in this case. There is not an added sense of irony tacked onto the narrator's tale and I do believe we can take her pretty much at her word.

To summarize then, Play It as It Lays is narrated by Didion in your traditional god-role as third person writer, although the only mind she's in is Maria's (other narrative voices also arise), in A Book of Common Prayer she plays the role of the narrator as a character in a film, given a new name and background, and in Democracy she is at her most truthful, explicitly stating her role which hasn't changed from the previous two novels.

Now this is probably boring for everyone but me. That said, I am very interested in this "growth curve" if you will. Didion wanted to write Play It as It Lays in first person. Admitting that her first novel was in first person, we can see that the tricks she had to learn did not seem to have to do with the point of view itself but how the point of view impacts the narrative. Play It as It Lays is far from a straight forward linear book itself, but the other two create bizarre and beautiful looping structures of story, as certain sentences and quotes arise from the novel to recur later, a technique adapted by Bret Easton Ellis for Less than Zero. The idea of these words blowing by characters later on in a narrative structure is an appeal to the process of writing itself and something that really excites me. In A Book of Common Prayer this maximizes out to its highest potential, as phrases occur in such a frenzy as to make the last paragraphs appear random, appear impossible to understand.

This is where the first person narrative is important. We understand the book as Grace's witness to Charlotte Douglas and because of this, the ending works, the overwhelming of our (fictional) writer by words is not something we could accept as truthfully were we to be reading it in third person. It would not compute.

In closing it seems necessary to say that in my belief a writer like DeLillo and Didion need no book reviews. You just need to read one of their books. At least I know I can't review them better than their books on the shelves of your local library can. So I do not make the attempt, knowing I would fail. My apologies if my exploration in place of any sort of review bores as much as I fear it might.

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