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.