Academic journal article Style

The Hollywood Novel: Gender and Lacanian Tragedy in Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays

Academic journal article Style

The Hollywood Novel: Gender and Lacanian Tragedy in Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays

Article excerpt

Play It As It Lays remains one of the most astute--and troubling--literary investigations of the causes and consequences of the Hollywood-led culture industry. The novel is unique within the subgenre of the Hollywood novel since it is one of the very few that focuses exclusively on the effects of the culture industry on women. Most of the best known Hollywood novels are concerned with the integrity and art of male protagonists, whose agency is construed in explicitly masculinist ways. Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, Norman Mailer's Deer Park, and Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister are just a few of many Hollywood novels that exemplify the subgenre' s overreliance on the equation of artistic integrity and masculinity. This tendency is comparable to the en-gendering of mass culture that Andreas Huyssen (among others) has argued is a characteristic of modernism. Hollywood novelists, like modernists, encode mass culture as a "feminine" discourse that functions as a co nvenient other for the sanctified, but beleaguered aesthetic discourse--a discourse, moreover, that is based on patriarchal, subject-object epistemology. Just so, both Hollywood and modernist novels participate in the oedipal narrative theorized by Freud and Lacan in which it can be said that "Woman does not exist" and "Woman is the symptom of Man." [1]

Day of the Locust established the ideological project of the Hollywood novel, a project that casts the artist as flawed subject who cannot distance himself from the desire that is generated by Hollywood for an inaccessible, impenetrable object (figured by a beautiful, bad actress). The tragedy of Tad Hackett is that he cannot escape the fate of all those alienated workers who have "come to California to die" (Locust 23). The artist is caught up in the angry crowd that feels cheated by the false promise of Hollywood to compensate them for years of routinized labor. In Tad's painting, "The Burning of Los Angeles," the angry mob is chasing after a mindlessly smiling Faye Greener, whose smile indicates the extent to which she is indifferent to the desire she activates. Like Day of the Locust, Little Sister is concerned with midwesterners whose desires bring them to Hollywood. And like Locust, Little Sister seeks to demystify this desire by demystifying its object. Chandler's Hollywood is as shabby as West's Holl ywood. But even though this knowledge comes as early and easily to Marlowe as it did to Tod Hackett, it doesn't diminish the desire. Mavis Weld, the deceitful actress whose cause Marlowe takes up, might be a more successful actress than Faye, but she is just as mannered and antimimetic.

Play It As It Lays takes one of these objects of desire for its progatonist. The novel eschews all such embedded ideologies as it tells the story of a disaffected actress without recourse to any culturally available counternarratives. In its overt revision of Hemingway's existential modernism, Play It As It Lays suggests how little this pair (patriarchy and modernism) speaks to the current historical conjuncture. The novel's bleak tone and minimalist style testify to the dilemmas confronting the subject in general (but especially the female subject) when no alternative ideologies seem capable of saving us from the reification that comes with participation in a commodity culture. Consequently, the novel belongs to what James M. Mellard has recently called the postpatriarchal, postoedipal universe theorized by the "New Lacanians" within which the "lack in the other" is in fact a constitutive lack in the subject herself. Herein, I would argue, lies the novel's distinctiveness within the canon of the Hollywood n ovel: unlike earlier, malepenned Hollywood novels whose tragedy is a consummately modernist tragedy, Play It As It lays is best read as a "postmodern tragedy" according to which the empty subject is infatuated with death in actual or symbolic forms. While the problem of Locust and Little Sister was too much desire, the problem of Play It As It Lays is too little. …

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