Best L.A. Novel Ever: Dominick Dunne's An Inconvenient Woman vs. Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
Dominick Dunne, the former Hollywood producer who found his second act as a first-rate Vanity Fair columnist and best-selling novelist, had a complicated relationship with his brother, John Gregory Dunne -- and, by extension, his brother's wife and screenwriting partner, Joan Didion. ("They were one of those couples who did everything together, and they were always in accord on their opinions, whatever subject was under discussion," Dunne wrote of the pair.) In the '90s, Dominick was the more commercially successful writer, but he craved the critical acclaim enjoyed by his younger brother, and John Gregory surely resented his elder brother's late-in-life success in his chosen field. Families!
Reading Dunne's An Inconvenient Woman side by side with his sister-in-law's Play It As It Lays is a fascinating exercise in understanding where the two writers' talents converge and then diverge. Both are gripping reads, telling the story of a woman on the brink of collapse, a collapse fueled in part by an affair with a married man. In Dunne's book, the woman is Flo March, a would-be actress who becomes the mistress of a fabulously wealthy man. In Didion's, it's Maria Wyeth, a would-be actress who becomes the wife, and then ex-wife, of a Hollywood director.
Dunne's book takes its inspiration from a true L.A. story: The heir to the Bloomingdale's fortune, Reagan confidant Alfred Bloomingdale, really did take a gorgeous young mistress, and that mistress really did go public with her secrets when Bloomingdale's wife pulled the plug on Bloomingdale's subsidies after his death. And then, yes, the mistress really did get murdered by her down-on-his-luck, trick-turning roommate -- or was she felled by a conspiracy to silence her?
The source material is unrivaled, and Dunne does it justice. An Inconvenient Woman is his greatest novel, by far: If you've only read his later novels, like the O.J.-inspired Another City, Not My Own, the intricate plotting and the depth of his empathy will surprise you. You feel for Flo, and her lovelorn married man, and the man's lovely wife, too. There are no villains here, not really; just flawed people who make the mistake of thinking they can have it all. It's nearly impossible to put down.
But in this tournament, as in life, Dunne had the misfortune to draw an even more talented competitor. Reading Joan Didion's cool, elegant sentences, you start to understand the difference between storytelling and literature: Dunne is telling a story, but Didion is taking you right inside the soul of another person and forcing you to see the whole mixed-up world from her eyes. You feel the hot asphalt on the soles of her feet as she calls her married lover from a gas station payphone. You feel her exhilaration at seamlessly executing a diagonal across four lanes on one of those complicated highway intersections. You feel her panic, and her stoic insistence that she is feeling no panic. She's fine; she's cool; she's just playing it as it lays.
At the end of Play It As It Lays, as at the end of many great novels, you feel positively depleted: You've gotten to know Maria Wyeth so well that you can't just close the book and let her go. She haunts you. You felt her suffering so deeply that now you are wounded, too.
In any other universe, An Inconvenient Woman would deserve a victory of its own. But in this tournament, a dazzling plot and crisp observation is just not enough.
One of the least sympathetic characters in An Inconvenient Woman is the prissy literary critic who refuses to like anything popular -- even as she yearns to be popular herself. Dunne understands our pretensions.
But while there are far too many writers who want to be Joan Didion, the real thing is the real thing. Didion is telling us something so urgent, it's impossible not to follow her wounded heroine out into the desert and on endless loops around the L.A. freeways. As Maria's story unravels, you can't help but drop everything and listen.
WINNER: Play It As It Lays