Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

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This book describes a particular kind of unhappiness very well. In excellent, biting prose. It’s clear from reading Joan Didion’s nonfiction that this tale of a semi-famous Californian woman staggering through an empty emotional/physical landscape, crying much of the time, is at least somewhat autobiographical.

I like when books use their physicality to convey meaning. Play it as it Lays greatly varies chapter and paragraph length, using the white space to augment the text’s description of the protagonist’s state of mind.

The atmosphere is oppressive; the desert heat and the freeway figure prominently. There’s a scene in a hot spring destination in the desert and a description of its patrons as old people who had reached the point in life where they sought restoration in desolation. The image immediately burned itself into my mind and sticks with me more than anything else in the book.

It’s a short, tense book that has a stretched feeling to it. Not in a bad way. More like, how can our train-wreck of a heroine even make it to the next page?

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith

whiteteethThis book is all over the place. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been thinking of it off-and-on since. I’ve heard Smith compared to David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushie, and Don Delillo — some of my favorite authors. White Teeth shares some similarities with first two; dysfunctional families, generational conflict, multiculturalism, etc. At it’s best, it is nearly as good as the former writers and in its own style, not aping theirs. It is also a debut novel; I’ve never read DFW’s first novel and don’t really intend too. I don’t know what Rushdie’s and Delillo’s debut novels are even called.

The problem is that it is rarely that good. Actually, I lied. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it is occasionally just bad. Droll. Boring. The first one hundred pages for instance, are banal and painfully unfunny. The book opens with the patriarchs of the two leading families (the working class English/Jamaican Jones’ and the working class Bengali immigrant Iqballs’) and it’s only when the story begins to abandon their wretched storylines and open up to their children that the book becomes legitimately good. Archie Jones might as well be Homer Simpson, he’s such a caricature of the working class family man. An unfunny Homer Simpson. Samad Iqball is an asshole. And not in a compelling or empathetic or interesting or pitiful way. Smith, who is pretty funny at times in the novel, cannot even make these guys amusing.

Even later on in the book, where the novel tries to empathize with these goons, when they sit in a bar they’ve been frequenting for twenty plus years and sort of embrace their love of things they can understand and put out of mind the things they can’t: read, the modern world, their children. No. Screw these guys. They didn’t even try.

But

Once the Jones and Iqball children are born, the quality of the novel skyrockets, even though we have to suffer through Archie and Samad at times. The Iqball twins (rebel Millat and genius Magid) and the Jones’ daughter, Irie, actually feel like characters and people rather than caricatures. Most of the time. And Smith actually makes them funny.

She even makes me sort of understand, via Millat, protesters burning a book they never read, as the novel, which begins in the early 70s, catches up with the publication of The Satanic Verses and the Rushdie affair. It also lead to the following quote, which is probably going to be lame an utterly contextless if you never read the book, but gave me chills when I read it:

“‘Everyone has to be taught a lesson,’ Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. ‘Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people’s things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what’s coming sooner or later.’”

The great scenes made the book compelling and worth reading. I will read more Zadie Smith even if parts of White Teeth were dreadful.

Also it just has some awesome quotes:

“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”