thank you joan: thoughts on women’s hardness

Emma Christie in 3:am Magazine:

I think much of my body awareness, in addition to my literary awareness, comes from Joan Didion. In Play It As It Lays, her 1970 novel (less popular than Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but still beloved), bodies are unpredictable geodes. Protagonist Maria’s (Mar-eye-ah’s) insides are vibrant with colour and edges and productive capability, but also completely invisible. She mines for menstruation in there, hoping she isn’t pregnant, which of course she is. A doctor ‘scrapes’ her zygote (a geological-seeming name in itself) out in an abortion scene that is refreshingly without either cynicism or romanticised maternal strickenness. But it doesn’t particularly matter (at least superficially) what goes on in there, in the novel’s bright and weird physical and psychological interiors. Didion is more interested in the woman’s outside, and what it can control. Maria has dreams that a “shadowy Syndicate” occupy her home in an illicit disposal operation. The grey flesh of victims clogs sinks, and water in drains begins to rise. So, certainly, a fear of the watery interior banishes Maria from her home into a tiny apartment, and structures several chapters of the novel. But my impression is that, despite being a clear-eyed writer of insides (especially those of women like herself) and a notable mid-century explorer of what Maggie Nelson has called “a situation of meat”, the disturbing softness and fallibility of the body and of consciousness, Didion is more interested in the hard geological outside, and whether it is hard, and how hard it is. What is women’s hardness? In the end, Maria—whose character is a variation on and also a criticism of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope—smokes half a joint, accrues a new psychosis or fixation, and moves back into that fleshy house with a life of its own, braving the interior.

What is that other thing that makes a geode interesting? Mostly, the contrast of the inside with its uninspiring, potato-like exterior. In this way, Didion is interested in Maria’s “insanity”, but again I have the impression that the relationship between stable exterior and unstable interior life is what interests her most: the watery swishing and scary unpredictability of Maria’s thoughts exists in tension with her presentation, her image, her interaction, her appearance, her milieu, her visible body perhaps most importantly.

More here.