Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Growing older is something that everybody–if they’re lucky–has to cope with. The condition differs, though, between the sexes. My sister has a police officer’s book of crime photographs from the turn of the last century, and I like to take it down every once in a while and torment myself by looking at the photos.

There’s a section of suicide photos and most of them are of old men, who have taken a shotgun to themselves. The impression I get from their blank, staring eyes is that they were all used up and had nothing left to give. With women, though, growing older is tied in with beauty and the diminishment of such. I can think of two examples in literature: a chapter in Little Women called “On the Shelf,” where the eldest March sister believes she is unlovely and dull after marrying and having a baby, driving her husband away. Another is Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, where Cecilia, the grandmother character, feels invisible, that nobody notices her, after she has passed a certain age.

Joan Didion’s book dwells on this issue with a story set in Hollywood, a place where one believes, after reading this story, that beauty is the only commodity a woman possesses, and once she no longer has that, she is worthless.

Maria, the main character of Play It As It Lays, has starred in two movies. One that she doesn’t like where her husband followed her around, shooting her daily routine, and then spliced the footage together, and one where she played a woman who is gang-raped by a group of bikers. Now Maria is having a difficult time getting film work and her estranged husband has eclipsed her as a director, glomming on instead to his current leading lady and flattering her.

Maria isn’t innocent. She’s had countless affairs while married to Carter, the husband she is in the process of divorcing in the story. And she becomes pregnant from one of these affairs, a pregnancy she’s pressured to end. Her first child Kate is rotten fruit and now hospitalized for an unknown condition. Maria tries to see her daughter often but is strongly discouraged from doing so.

After the illegal abortion (the book is set in the late 1960s), Maria goes off the rails. She becomes obsessive about driving on the California freeway, having to arrive at a certain time of day and only feeling complete when driving, traveling. She becomes frightened of pipes and plumbing and starts sleeping in hotels away from home or beside the swimming pool at night. As Maria becomes undone, her friend BZ also faces problems, but he is unable to cope, to play it as it lays.

Though the book was published in 1970, the issues are still applicable today. The things I overhear on the subway–sometimes, it seems, not much progress has been made. A group of Wall Street men in their mid- to late-twenties talking about women at bars once they turn thirty and are “hitting the wall.” According to this group of men, a woman becomes desperate at that age and is anxious to latch onto a man. They were all in agreement that such females should be avoided.

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell

I follow a few authors who use pen names to explore other parts of their writer’s identity or psyche. There’s Joyce Carol Oates (aka Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman), and Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine). I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell through a Barbara Vine book, King Solomon’s Carpet, when I began going through my subway obsession, which is ongoing. My friend Tamsin recommended the book, and I had to buy a tatty paperback copy off eBay because my library didn’t have the title. A big part of the book has to do with the London Underground, and the detail that has stuck with me is the amount of hair that clots in the tunnels–human hair–and has to be cleaned out regularly.

I was waiting for the second Felix Castor book to come in at the library and found myself without reading material, so I picked up Ruth Rendell’s The Lake of Darkness. Rendell, the proper name of the author, writes mysteries and tight suspense novels while Vine seems to deal with more macabre and gothic topics.

In The Lake of Darkness, Martin Urban is an upper-class Londoner who has always been lucky; it seems to follow him around. He has recently become reacquainted with an old school buddy whom Martin believes to be a homosexual and has a few peculiar fantasies about. This friend introduces Martin to the football pools, which he wins, and rather than selfishly spending the money on himself, Martin decides to disperse it among those who are less fortunate but according to his stipulations. Shockingly, Martin finds it rather difficult to give the money away.

The people Martin randomly touches touch him back and sometimes in ways he does not expect. Finn has a strong interest in the occult through his mother and works as a handyman; sometimes, too, he works as a contract killer, though he has bungled most of his commissions in one way or another. Finn’s mother is one of the unfortunates that Martin aims to help, but Finn hopelessly misunderstands Martin’s intent and acts in ways Martin could never imagine.

Rendell’s talent is neatly tying up the story she creates while making none of the coincidences or misunderstandings feel artificial or forced. Her plots and characters click neatly into place until you can see no other way for the story to end. I always notice this with the Rendell titles; endings are a looser ball of stuff in the Vine novels I’ve read.