On the surface of the matter, the two novels I’m going to make some comment on today could not be more different. The first, Jane Smiley’s novel Private Life, starts just after the Civil War, and traces the whole course (nearly) of a marriage, from the early days when there is still hope to the sad remainder, the ashes of hope, near the end of life. The second novel, by contrast, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, is a more recently set novel, taking place in the late 1960’s, almost contemporaneous with its date of publication in 1970. The first novel shows a woman observing all marital proprieties, though chafing against them. The second, a woman who regularly rebels not just in spirit, but who is no longer quite sure what marital proprieties are, or which ones pertain. Smiley’s novel is set in the American Mid- and Southwest: it starts in Missouri, and travels with its main characters to the area on the coast near San Francisco. It always seems to have a local sense of place, if that makes sense to my readers. Though Didion’s novel takes place in the Southwest too, and in fact is mainly set in Los Angeles, its surrounds, and Las Vegas, it has an international frame of reference which includes New York City. Private Life describes both the mundane and intimate daily life of a wife and her Navy-background husband, Margaret Early and Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, as they live together stolidly day-by-day and traces a gradual arc of development in Margaret’s knowledge of and feelings for her husband. Play It As It Lays, by contrast, focuses on only a short span of time in the yearly life of the wife of a movie executive, her name being Maria and his Carter. The first novel develops a sense of crisis gradually, and has its “big bang” at the very end; the second novel refers back elliptically to isolated former events, but subsists in a constant state of crisis, though the “answer,” the wife’s philosophical statement, and an expected crisis of sorts does emerge at the end.
The novels both show a mismatched couple, however, and both novels begin at a point in the end of the time arc and then flashback and work forward to that time again. As well, the rallying slogan of students and feminists from the 1960’s and 1970’s, “The personal is political,” applies to both novels, both marriages, and is at the heart of our discussion today. As some may recall and others may come to know, the slogan “The personal is political” was popularized by feminist Carol Hanisch in her 1969 essay of the same name. As one may discover by consulting Wikipedia, “It was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.” Whereas Jane Smiley’s novel makes the point directly, however, by showing how historically important events in the daily life of the nation affect a wife and her husband attempting to live together when it is clear almost from the beginning that they are not really compatible, Joan Didion’s novel makes the point in a more convoluted way, by showing another mismatched couple in which the wife is longing not for freedom of self-expression so much as for that very nuclear family life her husband disdains. Both wives lose a baby in the respective stories, Margaret to early infant death and Maria to an abortion insisted on by her husband because he doubts the baby is his. And both wives are far more affected by these deaths than the husbands, Andrew indifferently accepting the fact that his wife can never have another baby and that he must not engage in connubial relations with her, and Carter hardly able to feel properly about his wife as a partner at all, because he is (to give him some credit) as tortured as she is in their mutually hellish life of adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, and feverish party-going.
The most essential way in which these two heroines are alike is in the fact that both live their lives mainly as adjuncts to their husbands’ lives, and this is the part which ends up tripping them up. Margaret is typing handmaid to Andrew, who fancies himself a great public man and a keen scientific mind, and who ends up becoming a bit delusional and given to fits of mistaken grandeur. Her attention to his belief that everyone wants to hear everything he has to say, and that in print, is in addition to her dutiful practice of the tenets of housewifery of the time, the cooking, cleaning, and management of the household. Maria’s way of being an adjunct to her husband’s life is to star in minor pictures he makes, to trail along after him through his life of partying and so forth, even though they are estranged and thinking of divorce and he cheats on her and she on him in a casual way, and allowing him to dominate her in the matter of their differences about how to deal with the daily life of a small child they already have, Kate, whom Carter put in a home because she suffers from some sort of developmental disability.
The two heroines are different in some respects. Margaret is very practically oriented, and survives her life by taking care of ordinary matters, and using them as pegs upon which to hang her self-references. Maria, on the other hand, takes sudden drives up and down the coast, to Las Vegas, and stays in bed all day on some days, or makes tiny and repeated futile attempts to reach out to someone among the disaffected and brazen denizens and hangers-on of her and Carter’s world. Margaret makes purposeful friendships which help to see her through the days and nights, with Dora (a woman reporter who reads like a portrait of Willa Cather), Pete (a mysterious and charming Russian adventurer), and Naoko Kimura and her family, Japanese citizens of the United States who later suffer being sent to detention centers during WW II. Furthermore, she maintains the socially expected contacts with her landlady at a boarding house she once stayed in during her confinement and with neighbors and friends of her husband’s. Her revolution, though it comes at the end, is extremely slow in coming. Maria, on the other hand, is often dismissive of her husband’s and her own friends, because actually she feels so taut and miserable all the time that they bring her no relief, though she does spend some time with them. She is described by one reviewer, the blurb writer, as “catatonic,” and this, though not true in the technical sense, is true in the metaphorical sense: she can’t seem to effect change in any measurable way until the end.
Perhaps the main difference in them, however, is that in the end Margaret sets aside all the anxiety and care and trouble she’s taken over her husband and his books, and decides to write her own book, whereas Maria makes a suicide attempt which results in Carter placing her too (like her daughter Kate) in some kind of facility. But the difference isn’t perhaps as much as it might seem: though Maria’s solution is seemingly more self-destructive, Margaret’s choice is also destructive of the self she has always maintained, the dutiful wife and friend. When her friend Pete (and love interest) leaves town, she angrily does something she’s never done before and throws one of her husband’s thick and self-important letters into the back yard unread, to get wet in the rain and the dew. And she thinks to herself, “I have…no reason to be alive.” But far from actually causing her to kill herself, this thought gives her pleasure because it so contravenes what she knows are her husband’s beliefs. The main similarity is that finally both choose not to continue to follow in their husbands’ wake, but to call attention to themselves and their own needs, apart from the expected course of having a nuclear family as it appears in Private Life and the disapppointed ideal of Maria’s of the nuclear family model as it occurs in Play It As It Lays. Maria calls attention to herself by making an attempt on her own life, Margaret by electing to write a book of her own. How many heroines in how many novels and stories have we seen driven towards one or other of these extremes in order to survive as a woman in society? I don’t think I need to emphasize the point further.
What’s perhaps most intriguing is that near the end of both novels, the two heroines each state a sort of philosophy or guiding principle. As Margaret finally realizes and says to herself with some bitterness (able at last to bring to recall a long-lost memory from her childhood because she can now face the truth), “There are so many things that I should have dared before this.” In a similarly memory-oriented fashion, Maria thinks to herself near the end of Didion’s novel, “When I was ten years old my father taught me to assess quite rapidly the shifting probabilities on a craps layout: I could trace a layout in my sleep….Always when I play back my father’s voice is it with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.” In a sense, though one woman is actively planning an overthrow of her husband’s dominance by imitating his way with the world (appearing in print), and the other is biding her time (perhaps delusively) in a care facility and planning sometime in the future to live alone with just her daughter, Kate, they each have plans. And to each, the marriage she has endured with some difficulty has become a metaphor for all of life, which shows how overwhelming to each the experience has been.
To many people, even some well-intentioned and fervent feminists, now as in the earlier days of the women’s movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the slogan “The personal is political” has seemed a trifle humorless and grim, engendering nightmarish visions and imaginations of constant negotiations in the bedroom, the boardroom, and in all facets of daily life. It is only when we un-demonize the word “political” (hard as that is sometimes, given the shenanigans we see career politicians getting up to) that we realize that human existence is a perpetual matter of negotiation and compromise anyway, and that to admit women into the ranks of those allowed to participate was never a matter of choice, but was always a matter of moral necessity, long though it took to happen. But if you would sweeten the pill a little, then why not have a look at these two excellent novels, Jane Smiley’s a slow-developing long-reading picture of a lifetime lived with the “intimate enemy,” and Joan Didion’s a tough, glaring, burning endictment of a decadent lifestyle lived under the Western sun, without relief in sight? You will perhaps find that even the portrayal of pain and frustration has its aesthetic parameters and pleasures in the hands of masters.