Sex and Rage

The popular resurgence of Eve Babitz continues with this very special reissue of her novel, originally published in 1979, about a dreamy young girl moving between Los Angeles and New York City. Sex and Rage delights in its sensuous, dreamlike narrative and its spontaneous embrace of fate and work, and further solidifies Eve Babitz’s place as a singularly important voice in Los Angeles literature – haunting, alluring and alive.

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I absolutely fall into the category of person who clicks on every single ‘books you must read in your twenties’ list Buzzfeed vomits out. If my teenage reading was characterised by a desperate need to escape, as I’ve progressed into my twenties it has transformed into a frantic search for… something. I don’t think I’m the only one. If teen must-read selections major on the paranormal, tragiporn and romance, for us recent adults, picks are more along the lines of coming-of-age amidst heartbreak.

I’m on a solid reading diet of both, and I’m super into it. As much as I love YA, there is a certain amount of self-reflection I enjoy in adult books that, I’ve found you can’t really appreciate until you hit twenty-two and the dust starts to settle into something like your personality. It’s the point at which all those oddities of yourself you were always told you’d grow out of actually become the things you grow into, and subsequently come to blame your parents for.

Or is that just me?

Sex and Rage is exactly the sort of book that would feature on a must-reads for your twenties list. It is deliciously self absorbed. Though it’s written in the third person, it’s one that is close to its protagonist, Jacaranda. The world we experience is entirely hers as she tries to figure out who she is by means of self-destruction and the men who fall for her.

She feels afflicted by youth but total dread at the thought of aging, so tries to live in a way that winds up being too much for her heart to handle. By the age of 23, after five years of living away from the sea she loves so much, immersed in music and the affair she has with a married screenwriter, she moves back to the beach and declares herself bored with rock and roll and in search of the next adventure. And that’s just the first thirty pages.

Sex and Rage is the July pick for the Belletrist book club, and as every month they featured an interview with the author, in this case Eve Babitz. In their conversation with her, it came up that in search of fun, many young women find themselves in completely miserable situations. This is exactly what happens to Jacaranda.

Much of the narrative of the novel is defined by one man: Max. Jacaranda meets Max through an actor she’s sleeping with, and falls instantly in love with this older, charismatic man who lives a glamorous life and makes money through mysterious means that don’t necessarily seem to involve work. Though their relationship is never explicitly romantic – Max’s sexuality remains a point of mystery throughout – the intensity of it is greater than all of her other affairs.

Which means when it goes wrong – as always happens in Max’s life, it becomes apparent – the results for Jacaranda are catastrophic. Underneath his glamour and air of adventure, Max is a cold hearted bully with the ability to make you feel like the centre of the world one moment, and the next like you don’t deserve to live at all.

“The gold had washed off the surface and the Gates of Paradise had been melted down for private purposes no longer on public view. It was only art anyway. Max’s attitude seemed to say – a dismissal of all he’d been before – and suddenly he smelled like suitcases and dry cleaning, not a birthday party for an eight-year-old at all. She kept waiting for him to change back.”

Jacaranda is left deeply scarred by Max, who spent their time together undermining every aspect of her personality, from her appearance to her art – she painted surfboards for a living until Max told her she was a horrible painter – to her budding new love of writing.

As she spirals out into alcoholism and despair, even as her writing career picks up, it takes a long time for her to shed the negative beliefs about herself that Max installed in her. In so many ways, Sex and Rage is a novel of overcoming. Jacaranda’s writing is in defiance of Max and all the people who told her not to do it. To go and meet her publisher in New York – the city she knows Max is in – is to finally relinquish the fear of him that has controlled her life for the best part of a decade. To stop drinking is to know herself on a level she assumed no one would want after Max’s bitter rejection.

Sex and Rage is a sensuous, sexual, self-destructive time capsule of Los Angeles in the seventies. It’s one of those novels consumed with place as much as feeling and you can’t help but fall back into that time of seedy glamour and delayed consequences like sinking into a warm bath. You want to stay there forever, but you know it’s going to get cold and gross before you know it.

In the aforementioned interview with the Belletrist team, Eve Babitz said something that really struck me as emblematic of this book, and of optimism in general. She said:

“You’ll find yourself in a lot of miserable situations regardless, whether you’re seeking out a good time or not, but it’s better to try to enjoy oneself than give up all together and wither away. I have always preferred to look on the bright side.”

Yeah. That seems about right.

How to Be a Bawse

BAWSE/ ‘baus’/ n: a person who exudes confidence, hustles relentlessly, reaches goals and smiles genuinely because he or she has fought through it all and made it out the other side.

Lilly Singh isn’t just a superstar. She’s a Superwoman – which is also the name of her wildly popular Youtube channel. Funny, smart and insightful, the actress and comedian covers topics ranging from relationships to career choices to everyday annoyances. But Lilly didn’t get to the top by being lucky – she had to work for it. Hard.

How to Be a Bawse is the definitive guide to conquering life. Be warned: this book does not include hopeful thoughts, lucky charms or cute quotes. Success and happiness require real effort, dedication and determination. In Lilly’s world, there are no escalators, only stairs. Get ready to climb.

Consider Lilly a personal trainer for your life – with fifty practical rules to get you in the game. Told in Lilly’s hilarious, bold voice and packed with photos and previously untold stories from her journey to the top, this book will show you how to love life and yourself.

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In a culture in which overnight success is considered the only kind, Lilly Singh’s take the stairs, and life rewards hard work attitude is a breath of fresh air. In How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, she tracks her career from point A: recent psychology graduate, directionless and struggling with depression; to point B: womankind’s answer to Dwayne Johnson with a literal empire of Youtube followers (over 12 million) to boot – and advises you on how to do the same (or, whatever your equivalent may be.).

This no nonsense, practical guide serves as a metaphorical foot in the ass of individuals like myself who have vague dreams but are intimidated by the stress involved in making them a reality.

But why would I write the authentic personal essays I want to write when I could just binge watch sitcoms and avoid my feelings? Are the sort of questions Singh spends this book giving the serious side eye. In every beautiful photograph scattered throughout, Lilly stared at me with a look that said: get your shit together, Tewkesbury.

I’m trying.

In her succinct, funny and pure style, Singh takes us through the qualities she’s cultivated that have helped her succeed. The word I would use to describe Lilly’s self-help style is: strident. She makes clear that she’s only there to give directions. It’s up to you, the reader, to get in the car and drive it. And if you don’t… well, that’s nobody’s fault but your own.

That said, she is not an author without empathy. She just believes in the power of saving oneself. I guess it’s kind of like in the movie except Ares is your own ability to procrastinate?

Okay, I just realised that’s actually Wonder Woman. But whatever. My point stands.

Nobody is going to kill Ares for you. You’ve got to get that shit done yourself. Even if it means leaving your beautiful, women only island where misogyny is a weird myth you laugh about over cocktails (I assume).

How to Be a Bawse is far from pithy, Instagram quote-worthy. It’s, at times, a tough read in which Singh asks you to get real and put aside the bullshit you tell yourself in order to get to your actual emotions. And she doesn’t just tell you to do it, she does it herself, giving examples from her own life where she’s had to send the GPS deep, even when doing so was uncomfortable and difficult.

Like, maybe the real reason I don’t write those authentic personal essays is because I am afraid of rejection because I have been rejected a lot (#daddyissues) and so I’ve come to see it as inevitable?

It turns out a lot of the work most worth doing falls under the labels of uncomfortable and difficult. God damn adulthood.

How to Be a Bawse is inspiration, encouragement and some much needed admonishment packaged in a beautiful (and ridiculously heavy. This was not a fun one to lug around public transport, let me tell you.) hardback. You can’t help but finish the book with a sense that anything is possible, if only you’re willing to work hard enough.

And hard work is something we’re capable of, if we let ourselves be.

Marlena

The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades.

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbour, the magic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as she catalogues a litany of firsts – first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill – Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within a year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.

Told in a haunting dialogue between the past and the present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to bring oneself back from the brink.

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Marlena by Julie Buntin is a poetically written coming of age set against a backdrop of rural poverty, drug abuse and the magical powers of female friendship.

Oof. This is not an easy read. To read Marlena is to live a few days with the particular sadness of getting to know a character with the knowledge that at some point in the book, they are going to die. Our willingness to inflict emotional trauma on ourselves is one of the odd peculiarities that comes with being a total story fangirl.

It’s rare that I talk about world building outside of the context of fantasy, but in Marlena, Julie Buntin has created one that is as immersive as it is oppressive. The bleakness of the landscape, occupied by, as so many spaces are, only the very rich and the very poor, seems to soak up the potential of its inhabitants. Though Marlena is undoubtedly a book of feelings – of love, rejection, shame and grief – it is also one of the all-encompassing boredom that comes with being a teenager in a shitty town in the middle of nowhere.

Unlike a lot of the stories I read written from the perspectives of teenagers, our protagonist, Cat, is telling the story as an adult woman looking back on the year that formed so much of who she became as an adult. This creates an awareness of adolescence that is necessarily absent from YA (because when you’re a teen literally the last thing you’re interested in is analysis of being a teen from people who no longer are one. Then you turn 22 and start realising you need to figure out your shit and then it’s all you want to read. Trust me on that.). Marlena is an exploration of adolescence from adulthood in which Buntin reflects with painful emotional honesty on sex, obsessive friendship, naivety and body image to the point you can’t help but feel, as Stephanie Danler writes, “sick to my stomach, with equal parts fear and nostalgia – stunned that any of us made it out of our adolescence alive.”

Cat and Marlena’s friendship makes for a compelling and tragic read. They in fall in love through each fulfilling for the other a need they had never vocalised: for Cat, the need to be connected to somebody, to feel seen in order to feel alive (who hasn’t been there?) and for Marlena, to be loved innocently for the first and probably only time in her short, difficult life. Buntin skilfully maintains an insurmountable distance between the two girls using the comparative innocence that likely drew Marlena to Cat in the first place. The evil lurking in Marlena’s life is the meth addiction that has stolen so many people from her community, including her abusive father, whose addition controls his life. It also has her boyfriend, Ryder, who sells the drug, in its grip. This is a force that dominates Marlena’s life, and always has. It’ll lead to what seems at the end her inevitable death. Yet, when Cat first sees the improvised meth lab lurking in Ryder’s home, she has no idea what she’s looking at, she doesn’t see the fire that’s already burnt Marlena’s house to the ground.

Marlena is a beautiful and tragic book about sisterhood and grief. It is a story in equal parts sickening and compelling with a rawness concerning the darker aspects of girlhood that left me in pieces. Buntin has presented us with a difficult but thrilling debut that has left me excited – when I recover, anyway – for whatever she comes up with next.

Too Much and Not the Mood

On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words “too much and not the mood.” She was describing how tired she was of correcting her own writing, of the “cramming in and the cutting out” to please readers, wondering if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying.

The character of that sentiment, the attitude of it, inspired Durga Chew-Bose to collect her own unconventional work. The result is a lyrical and piercingly insightful cluster of essays-meet-prose poetry about identity and culture.

Informed by Maggie Nelsons Bluets, Lydia Davis’s stories, and Vivian Gornick’s exploration of interior life, Chew-Bose mines the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Too Much and Not the Mood is a lush, surprising, and affecting examination of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today.

Book + coffee + sunshine = happy place #bookstagram #belletristbabe #summer #sundayfunday

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I read a lot of essay collections written by women. I treat them like instruction manuals for life; I return to them over and over and over again when I need to scratch a particular emotional itch.

You probably know the one I mean.

But in all the collections that line my bookshelves there is nobody quite like Durga Chew-Bose. It makes sense to me that she named her collection after a Virginia Woolf quote because Too Much and Not the Mood flows, bounces and draws up short in a stream of consciousness style that is distinctly Woolfian.

I was thrown off balance as soon as I started reading, finding the first essay, ‘Heart Museum’ (probably the most experimental of the collection) was 93 pages long. It’s Chew-Bose at her most whimsical. You don’t so much open the door into her world as tumble, Alice in Wonderland-style endlessly down into her interior life, wondering, all the while, how she managed to paint the inside of her brain in a way that makes introversion feel big instead of claustrophobic. The essay meanders through anxiety, writing, your woman friends who make you feel more connected than anybody else, so called ‘nook’ people and the purpose and beauty that can be found in, as she calls it, intentionally digressing.

In Too Much and Not the Mood, Chew-Bose is preoccupied by her childhood and her relationship with her parents in particular. In another standout essay, ‘D as In’, she writes about her experience of being a first-generation kid, and how being a woman of colour comes with ‘an assumption that I owe strangers an answer when they inquire’ but where are you from from? It is a beautiful piece about finding your identity while living in a society that so often imposes a limited one on people from minorities.

My copy of the book is filled with dog-eared pages. Durga Chew-Bose’s writing is like unwrapping a gift or sinking into a hot bath after a long day. There is something luxurious about existing in the interior space that she creates. A great example of this is the piece ‘On Living Alone’, which she writes of as an exercise in getting to know the person she’s spent her whole life avoiding: herself. She writes: ‘Living alone, I soon caught on, is a form of self-portraiture, or retracing the same lines over and over – of becoming.’

There were so many moments while reading that I had to put the book down and quietly wonder at her writing. There were other times I had to wave the book in the air and read out passages to the nearest friend or family member I could grab hold of. I took photos of quotes and sent them to my friends, to confused responses mostly. Chew-Bose has such a poetic way of cutting to the heart of a feeling in a way that made me catch my breath.

In the final essay of the collection ‘My Least and Most Aware’, she recounts meeting up with an ex, and the way that all of the old resentments she thought she’d moved past came rushing back to the surface. She writes:

 ‘We laboured, he and I, over niceties. Listening to him felt like work. It was as though we were both trying to retrieve a mutual tenderness that had fallen from our hands and rolled into a storm drain.’

I already know this is one I’ll be reading over and over.

 

The Good Immigrant

How does it feel to be constantly regarded as a potential threat, strip-searched at every airport? Or to be told that, as an actress, the part you’re most fitted to play is ‘wife of a terrorist’? How does it feel to have words from your native language misused, misappropriated and used aggressively towards you? How does it feel to hear a child of colour say in a classroom that stories can only be about white people? How does it feel to go ‘home’ to India when your home is really London? What is it like to feel you always have to be the ambassador for your race? How does it feel to always tick ‘Other’?

Bringing together 21 exciting black, Asian and minority ethnic voices emerging in Britain today, The Good Immigrant explores why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms.

Inspired by discussion around why society appears to deem people of colour as bad immigrants – job stealers, benefit scroungers, undeserving refugees – until, by winning Olympic races, or baking good cakes, or being conscientious doctors, they cross over and become good immigrants, editor Nikesh Shukla has compiled a collection of essays that are poignant, challenging, angry, humorous, heartbreaking, polemic, weary and – most importantly – real.

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Despite stop and search statistics, our attitude toward refugees – our ex-prime minister David Cameron having once referred to people running for their lives as a ‘swarm’ –  and the general acceptance in our country that a person with a white-sounding name will get the job over a ‘foreign’ one, there’s this weird sense here in the UK that racism is an ‘American problem’. That those gun-toting police, murdering black men and women is the sort of thing that could never happen ‘over here’, though of course it does. Guns or no guns, racism is as ingrained a part of our society here in the UK as it is abroad, and comforting ourselves with the notion that we’re not as bad as the US is really not helping.

What is helping, I think, is work like The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has gathered a diverse group of writers from all different ethnicities, backgrounds and career paths to analyse experiences of racism in the UK.  Shukla’s own essay, which kicks off the book, tackles cultural appropriation, in particular the use of ‘namaste’ , a word that actually means hello, but has become ‘a bastardised metaphor for spiritualism’ adopted by white people (of whom I have to admit I am one. To me it meant only ‘yay yoga’. Education is a lifelong endeavour). What follows is a collection without a weak link. Each writers’ voice is strong, full of feeling – whether that’s anger, amusement, sadness, frustration, etc. – and unique. The collection weaves personal stories together with statistics and studies to create an experience that is as empathetic as it is informative.

It would be impossible to do justice to every essay in the this collection without writing a blog several thousand words long, so I’m going to focus on just three essays in this outstanding collection.

Trust me, and buy it.

“You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.” – Darren Chetty

Chetty has been teaching primary school children for 20 years in multicultural, multiracial and multifaith communities. In that time he came to notice that despite encouragement, the majority of children of colour in his classes would only ever write stories with white protagonists. In this essay he incorporates his own teaching experience with studies and essays written by others to explore this phenomenon. By analysing children’s literature and pop culture, Chetty weaves a fascinating piece that demonstrates the nonsensical way in which the viewer of so much mainstream British pop culture is assumed to be white, and the effect that has on children in minorities.

One of the most depressing of Chetty’s experiences while doing this work was the often aggressive response of other teachers. As I mentioned, here in the UK we like to pretend that we live in a society that is somehow ‘post-racial’, and this is no more obvious, Chetty writes, than in the way we insist on seeing children as ‘colour-blind.’ He says:

“If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colour-blind. However, even the strongest advocates of racial colour-blindness do not argue that all people are white… and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour writing exclusively about white characters?”

Next time someone tries to tell me stories aren’t important, I will wave this essay in their face by way of response.

Flags – Coco Khan

Flags is sbout the time Khan, an Asian woman, woke up after a one night stand to find herself in a room draped in Union Jacks. Her immediate assumption was that the cute blonde white guy she’d met was, in the cold light of day, a secret, hair-having skinhead.

This is an essay about sexual liberation and race, and where the two things intersect. After growing up being taught that sex was shameful, and something that men could have without concern but women would always be punished for, Khan was determined, in her young adulthood, to form a new narrative.

But she kept facing the same ignorance. Men assumed they knew her through ill-informed racial stereotypes, and she began to question whether they were attracted to her because she was attractive, or because was ‘a brown-shaped thing that will do’. Flags is a gutting look at the racial stereotyping women of colour face can from their sexual partners, and the assumptions that are forever made regarding their autonomy and sexual identity.

“On dates I would tolerate the vaguely insulting stereotypical questions, patiently answering, ‘No, I have never been promised to a man I’ve never met. Actually I can barely cook at all.’”

Khan’s essay is a unique take on the ways in which we so often other and dehumanise people of colour, and put individuals in a position where they are somehow expected to behave as ‘an ambassador for their race’.

Airports and Auditions – Riz Ahmed

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I didn’t pick this just because I have a crush on Riz Ahmed.

Honestly.

It’s (probably?) my favourite essay of the collection because, it seems to me – as a white girl who hasn’t never experienced any of what she’s talking about – to do a really great job of encapsulating what it must be to experience life as an Asian man in a country full of people who assume you’re a terrorist. Ahmed compares auditions with the interrogation room: “They’re places where the threat of rejection is real. They’re also places where you’re reduced to your marketability or threat –level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels.”

Turns out that ‘random searching’ isn’t so random. I imagine this comes as a surprise to nobody.

Ahmed talks in blunt terms about the way that this constant labelling by outside sources affects a person’s soul, and how, over time, he has figured out ways to ignore it, though he shouldn’t have to. He can, on a good day, view his perpetual racial profiling as the total farce that it is and maybe even laugh about it.

He ends the essay on an interaction he had with another young Muslim guy, an airport staff member who happened to be conducting the ‘random searches’ that day. This guy was particularly apologetic and a fan of Ahmed’s, so by way of comfort, he shared that he always gets searched when he flies, too. Ahmed writes:

“We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority’s shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you’re on the right side of it.”

The Good Immigrant is timely, important, frustrating, funny, sad and hopeful. It’s a fantastic read that asks you to look critically at the way we treat people of colour in the UK, and the damage done by racist stereotyping and a media that still largely caters to a white audience.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy picks you up and hurts you through the story of how she lived believing the rules no longer applied – that marriage doesn’t have to mean monogamy, that ageing doesn’t have to mean infertility, that she could be ‘the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses’. But all of her assumptions about what she can control are undone after a string of overwhelming losses.

Levy’s own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed – and what never can.

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“I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all”

I want to start this review with a sort of trigger warning. This book is ultimately about a traumatic miscarriage, and if that’s something you’re not in a place to deal with right now, I would recommend steering clear of The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy goes into the specifics of the experience in detail, and it’s hard to read.

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The Rules Do Not Apply is an interesting take on the notion of ‘having it all’. Rather than look at the idea in terms of career, Levy uses her memoir to study the polarities within herself. As the quote above illustrates, her desires for excitement and comfort are frequently at war with each other in ways that are destructive to both states.

“I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.”

‘Life doesn’t ever go as planned’ is one of the clichés adults start rolling out around the time you turn fifteen and people start seriously asking you what you’re going to do with your life (which is such a joke anyway). It’s a throwaway comment most of the time, but others, advice someone is choosing to impart kind of desperately, like they want to go into more detail but they can’t yet.

Because they don’t know how it ends, I guess.

It’s the desperate I’m-seriously-worried-but-trying-to-keep-it-light version of ‘life doesn’t ever go as planned’ that hangs heavy over The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy foreshadows what she calls the explosion of her life, by referencing an evil she invited into it, an evil that began the gradual disintegration of her marriage and finished with her miscarriage.

Levy delves into a lot in this relatively short memoir. Times skips from her early twenties, back to childhood and forward to her thirties and her marriage. The skips are fluid and purposeful, the stories from her early twenties illustrate a young woman driven by the need for adventure, while the moments she picks to describe from childhood shed light on the decisions she makes as an adult.

She writes a lot about infidelity, both her own and that of her mother. She frames them both as women who feel stifled by domesticity and self-destructive as result. They are both torn between opposing desires for uncertainty and stability that neither of their lovers (or their spouses) turn out to be the solution to. She doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of herself, and writes interestingly on the experience of doing something shitty, recognising its shittyness and also her inability to stop doing it. It’s equal parts raking herself over the coals and accepting mistakes that cannot be changed.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a book concerned with grief. The big, overwhelming grief of losing her child, and her whole future as she had imagined it would play out. But it’s also the grief resulting from the gradual, painful dissolution of her marriage. Through infidelity, addiction and lies – both to each other and themselves – Levy and her wife come to realise that the life they thought they were building was a fragile and ultimately unsustainable one.

As predominantly YA readers, we read an awful lot of stories about falling in love. It makes sense – falling in love for the first time is an experience of many people’s teens (not mine, but that is another story #colddeadheart). There is something different but equally interesting to me in reading about a breakup, especially of a long relationship (I think Levy was married for around 10 years). There is a different sort of beauty in the snapping of the stitches people thought would hold them together forever.

We like to think that we can have everything. Some of us were brought up with the idea that it – everything – was owed to us. But that fact is, life is more complicated than that. The Rules Do Not Apply details some harsh realities and the resilience required to navigate them. It’s well worth a read.

 

 

Play It As It Lays

A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.

Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of the arid soul – Play It As It Lays remains, more than three decades after its original publication, a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crises and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

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After becoming totally obsessed with the Belletrist Instagram account it’s only natural that my TBR would fill with Joan Didion. I have been meaning to get into her work for years and Belletrist provided the push. After finishing the torturously short South and West I figured I should turn to her fiction.

Play It As It Lays is not an easy novel. Joan Didion manages to construct a story that is at once intense and consumed with ennui. You feel as if you should be sprawled elegantly across a chaise long while reading the spare but piercing prose, or lying still in a sweaty hotel room bed out in the desert, like Maria, its protagonist.

Didion’s writing is unflinching and unemotional – a fact that often jars given the subject matter of the novel – mental illness, suicide, abortion – but curiously pulls you forward through it, down into the depths of its protagonist’s psychological unravelling. The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric ward, and then travels back through the events that led to her admittance there. Current and past events are split by the use of first and third person – a technique I have never seen applied as Didion uses it.

Maria is a failed actress living in a failed marriage. Her daughter, Kate suffers with some undefined disorder and so lives in a hospital away from her. Maria isn’t always allowed to see Kate when she wants to, and it remains unclear whether this is because of Carter, Kate’s father or because of the hospital staff.  Maria and Carter are definitely getting a divorce, but whether or not they’ll actually break up remains in question.

Maria is unable to let Carter share in her suffering. His career is starting to take off, while hers is stalling – a fact for which she deeply resents him. They’re both cheating, though you imagine which of them is punished for it – Maria, obviously. When she falls pregnant by another man, Carter forces her into an abortion she didn’t choose. It’s a trauma that haunts her throughout the novel and one that she never discusses with anyone.

What Maria wants – the only thing she seems to care about at all, actually – is the ability to define her own life. She wants to live in the countryside with Kate and make jam. Instead she is passed between her husband and his friends, deemed by all unable to care for herself. They might be right, but that isn’t the point.

Early in their marriage, Carter and Maria made two films together. In the second, Maria plays a rape survivor fighting for justice for herself. The film was brought by a studio and distributed, but never particularly successful. Maria loved it and was so enamoured of her character’s ‘definite knack for controlling her own destiny’. The first film, called simply ‘Maria’ won awards at art festivals and is the one for which Carter first became known. ‘Maria’ is seventy four minutes of ‘Maria asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT’. Maria herself can’t bear to watch it. Her self-hatred runs so deep that even a loved one’s reflection of her causes her pain. The girl in the movie, she says ‘had no knack for anything.’

Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning – or lack thereof. In the sparse prose Didion narrates the action, but doesn’t cast judgement on it. Even in Maria’s worst moments we never really turn into the pantomime audience, hissing and booing from the side lines. Even in the presence of such action from other characters in the novel, Maria herself remains untouched by it. The novel isn’t really about deciding whether Maria is good or evil, so much as just immersing yourself in her psyche. Good and evil are labels that connote a certain level of meaning, after all, and to Maria, there is no such thing. Meaninglessness to Maria is like a secret only she is in on. This theme is apparent even from the very first line:

‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’

This first line is important as it serves as a sort of mission statement for the novel, and one of the only incidences in which Didion uses a question mark. This general lack of question marks shows Maria as a woman who sincerely believes that there are no answers left to be found. She is a person without curiosity, moving through the world because time passes, but not really participating in it.

Play It As It Lays is not a book for everyone. Nobody in the book is ‘likeable’, so if that sort of thing is important to you, you’re probably not going to get into it. But for me, lately, I have found I’m less interested in reading what is comfortable. And Play It As It Lays is about as uncomfortable as it gets.