Didion, Collins, Plath

The discovery was made on a Friday night in Manhattan: a 1978 Pocket Books paperback edition of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays was lying on a coffee table in a young man’s apartment on the Lower East Side. The novel rested next to an iPod deck playing Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, several cans of beer, and the remnants of a takeout dinner, all of it bathed in the crepuscular glow of a fluorescent light coil in a windowless room that smelled of Thai food and cigarette smoke. The presence of a novel about a rich 30-something divorcee’s oppressive anhedonia was amusing in such an adolescent context, although upon consideration Play It As It Lays might be a book one must read as a twenty-something. Read at a later age, it is unforgivably maudlin. I read Play It As It Lays when I was twenty-one because I thought it might be the elusive feminist roman à clef, possibly with something practical to say about sex. It is no such thing. Play It As It Lays, as described on the back cover of the 2005 FSG Paperback Classics edition, is a book about “the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.” Its vapid and amoral characters hurt each others’ feelings in a place “beyond good and evil,” a netherworld that’s “literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul.”

A soft-focus brunette with a smudgy bouffant graced the back cover, her gaze as vacant as the landscape of her arid soul. Her jewelry glittered like so many unshed tears. The image of her person suggested Quaaludes spilled across a pink marble vanity, glasses of rosé thrown in rage, and entire afternoons spent staring at a mascara wand and trying to recall its purpose. The gleam of her lip gloss alone refracted a lifetime of psychological turmoil.

On the front cover, the shiny red talons of the woman’s manicured hand clutched a compact mirror, which reflected not her blurry face but . . . a hummingbird! (All the Lacanian feminist theories of the 1970s about scopophilia and the phallocentric gaze suddenly converge on this book cover, which rejects the corrupted female image for a symbol of female interiority: the encircled bird.) In the novel, the hummingbird is the only object upon which the protagonist, Maria Wyeth, can fix her thoughts after the post-divorce, post-abortion nervous breakdown that lands her in a mental institution. (“I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino.”) She watches the bird and plays solitaire in the (presumably) nectar-filled gardens of the luxurious private institution where she convalesces. “I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird,” she narrates. “I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?”

The game? Or the games? If the image of an encircled bird in flight has not yet rung a bell, then perhaps the reader does not keep her eye on the posters that line the platforms of the New York City subway system. In my mind, the encircled bird on the cover of the 1978 Pocket Books edition of Play It As It Lays immediately recalled another: the mockingjay pin given to Katniss Everdeen at the start of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I had not yet read The Hunger Games, but I had spent countless minutes—possibly hours on weekends—staring at the poster depicting the mockingjay pin in flames at the Myrtle-Willoughby stop on the G Train. Like the covers of other blockbuster novels for teenagers I had not read, this one had left an indelible image.

In the Lower East Side apartment, the momentous realization of the improbable coincidence between the two book covers preceded an urgent round of mobile phone photography and beaming of images into the ether. The illustrations are not identical, but still! The Hunger Games’s genetically modified mockingjay faces left and carries an arrow in its beak; Didion’s hummingbird-as-symbol-of-the-resilient-kernel-in-every-woman’s-soul faces right and carries nothing. Play It As It Lays is about giving up on the game; The Hunger Games is about not only volunteering for the game but also winning it, humiliating its despotic referees, and getting a second boyfriend.

I have since read The Hunger Games. Like the first chapter of Play It As It Lays, The Hunger Games is written in the first-person, present-tense voice of a hard-boiled misanthropic cynic. Both Maria Wyeth and Katniss Everdeen have had nasty experiences that have demystified the empty narratives of success and happiness peddled by the powers that be in their homelands (Hollywood and Panem respectively). Both the hummingbird and the mockingjay are symbols of as-yet unattained freedom. In both books, the presence of the birds assures the narrators an exit from their present ideological confinements. On the cover of the third installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, the bird has even broken free from its circle into freedom.

The Hunger Games is written for seventh graders. Play It As It Lays is written for grown-ups. When I started writing this I thought there might be something amusing, in the coincidence with their covers, about the way publishers market books to the gynecaeum. But instead of a continuity, the birds revealed a schism. The gender-neutral cover of The Hunger Games would not embarrass a boy. The blurry feminine cover of the 1978 Pocket Books edition of Play It As It Lays, in the context of the apartment of a 24-year-old male incorrigible, made us all laugh. For the lifelong female reader, the fault line between the unquestioned dominance of female writers who write for children and the defensive posture of women who write so-called literary fiction for adults arrives abruptly in adolescence. After reluctantly shelving Madeline L’Engle or Susan Cooper or E. Nesbit the female reader reaches into the twentieth-century canon for The Bell Jar. While the characters of the canonical twentieth century male coming-of-age novels are off dabbling with prostitutes and ejaculating into Kleenexes, the females—at least in the course of my own limited reading—were having nervous breakdowns, suffering sexual trauma, or lying around in semi-catatonic states.

The Bell Jar was and continues to be very dear to me, both in my own times of semi-catatonia and beyond. Sylvia Plath tells the story of a confident—even arrogant—person who experiences a corrective realignment of her place in the world. She falters. Joan Didion, in Play It As It Lays, tells a similar story. Both authors refuse the unlikely triumph of a book like the The Hunger Games or the narrative solution of marriage. Their acceptance of the unresolved is what makes them adult writers. But I wonder if Didion or Plath understood that they also told a story of literature. Their nihilistic, collapsing narrators coincided, at least for this reader, with an all-around disruption of female authority in letters. When Faber recently published a fiftieth anniversary edition of The Bell Jar in the UK, its cover illustration depicted a young woman applying lipstick while looking into a compact mirror. Critics complained that the publisher had reduced Sylvia Plath to chick lit, but there’s nothing about the photo that suggests a frivolous read. Women apply makeup every day: what the cover suggests is a book about a female experience. A songbird or an abstract pattern are not more suitable emblems of Plath’s work, but they are less gendered.

This article first appeared at Paper Monument as part of the “See Something, Say Something” series.

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