didion’s minimalism

In my lit course we’ve been reading Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays and there is so much for the young writer to learn from this book. I have to preface this review or response or whatever you want to call it by saying I’m a writer and not a literary critic. Mostly I appreciate form and not meaning.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines literary minimalism–because I couldn’t find a good definiton in my literary handbook:

  • Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Minimalist authors eschew adverbs and prefer allowing context to dictate meaning. Readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story, to “choose sides” based on oblique hints and innuendo, rather than reacting to directions from the author. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.

 And as Didion gives us in her essay “Why I Write,” I am not very good at writing in abstracts so I’ll try to explain specifically how this book is motivating me tonight after a pretty decent discussion with my students last night. Like me they found the book dark and sinister–the themes of male dominance over the main character Maria. They also enjoyed the form which is truly why I admire the book. So spare and nearly as barren as the desert Maria drives through to reach her husband, Carter. Instead of a long and drawn out narrative as in other books we’ve read–and I’ve just finished Love in the Time of Cholera this summer and that book does have an overly sense of telling rather than showing–and this book and its 83 chapter–scenes really–are so spare they are incredibly rigorous to read. Some chapter requiring a few reads to gain footing concerning plot and in some cases even dialogue tags. It is almost as if the technical is Didion’s focus here and not character or plot. In fact we learn the most of Maria and not the men running around her, which perhaps is Didion’s point.

And her is some quick research on minimalism I wanted to throw up here. According to Chuck Palahniuk in his essay “Chasing Amy” where he praises Amy Hempel for her minimalism, Tom Spanbauer classifies minimalism to four components:

  1. Metaphor: develop recurring metaphors for reader to interpret
  2. Burnt tongue: Force reader to read close, twice
  3. Recording angel: narrator without passing judgment
  4. Writing on the body: tasty, smelly and touchable details—give reader a physical reaction

This applies so completely and closely to Didion’s text it is as if Spanbeaur is speaking of Didion. In Didion’s novel the theme of evil is given to us throughout in the physical fear and finding of snakes. Maria’s existential dread comes to us in the character trait of dreading snakes. But not only snakes–snakes who the universe or mother nature has decided should be venomous but having the traits of non-venomous snakes. 

Didion writes:

  • “Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask. I never would, not anymore.” 

All giving us the problem of evil as a recurring motif in the book but in such economy. The idea that the universe is amoral and can strike at you in the everyday at any moment is another recurring theme. This the second paragraph of the book and reaches a note another writer would’ve taken pages to reach.

More on Didion to come as I finish rereading this amazing book…

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

3 thoughts on “didion’s minimalism”

  1. Must. Read. This. Book! Have to say, though, the “repressed Freudian literary critic” in me islaughing at the snake imagery. SORry!

  2. Not laughing at DIDION, though, you understand. Never at her. She’s brilliant. Laughing at myself!

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