The Disassociated Protagonist

There’s doubtless a more-approved critical term for this phenomenon, but I only took one lit-crit class in college, and also I don’t care. This is my term, and I’m finding it all over Play It As It Lays, which I’ve mentioned before I’m reading.

Observe:

In the care she counted the stiff bills. They stuck together and she missed one and she counted them four more times before she was certain she had them all. Since early morning she had been trying to remember something Les Goodwin had said to her, anything Les Goodwin had said to her. When she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distinct from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep. It had seems this past month as if they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or ending, no point beyond itself. She tried to remember how it had been to drag Fremont Street in Vegas with Earl Lee Atkins when she was sixteen years old, how it had been to go out on the desert between Vegas and Boulder and drink beer from half-quart cans and feel her sunburn when he touched her and smell the chlorine from her own hair and the Lava soap from his and the sweet sharp smell of the starched cotton soaked with sweat. How High the Moon, the radio would play, Les Paul and Mary Ford. She tried to remember Ivan Costello, tried to fix in her mind the exact way the light came thought the shutters in his bedroom in New York, the exact colors of the striped sheets she had put on his bed and the way those sheets looked in the morning and the look of a motel room in which they had once spend a week in Maryland. She tried to remember Carter. She tried to remember Les Goodwin. She could remember it all but non of it seemed to come to anything. She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on.

This is from page 68-69 of my library copy, and most of the book is like this, the narrative of a woman who is almost out of her mind. She is utterly dissociated from the people in her life and acts out of inchoate impulses. And it strikes me that this reads much the way that anything by Bret Easton Ellis does. Less Than Zero is entirely in this vein, as is American Psycho. I’m not saying that Ellis is necessarily directly influenced by Didion, but I would not be surprised.

The primary difference is in what causes the dissociation. Less Than Zero is an exile observing the primal bestiality of Los Angeles, and American Psycho is capitalism atomising human beings into objects and body parts. Play It As It Lays‘ Maria seems to be dissociated by sex and the Men in her life. Something something Patriarchy something something.

There’s probably a lot of stories like this. I reckon I could crank one out if I wanted to.

Novels and Chapters

Is a Novel a series of Chapters, or are chapters just digestible parts of a novel?

Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one complete work. It was subdivided into three “books” by his publisher. When I am drafting a novel (or novella, as I currently am), I usually start with a chapter number in mind (The Sword started as 12 chapters, then became 15). A chapter is a kind of movement, or act, with a beginning and an ending. Now this isn’t rigid, and sometimes a chapter has to be further divided or combined with another. But I have an idea of when its done when I start writing it.

Currently I’m reading Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, and she does that amusing thing, that I haven’t seen since Douglas Adams, of having chapters that are barely more than a paragraph, while others go on much longer. These are chapters that simply denote the passage of time, and some can be mere snapshots of a moment that moves the characters or underlines a point about them. A chapter can be literally whatever you want a chapter to be.

Hence my question.