A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.
Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of the arid soul – Play It As It Lays remains, more than three decades after its original publication, a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crises and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.
After becoming totally obsessed with the Belletrist Instagram account it’s only natural that my TBR would fill with Joan Didion. I have been meaning to get into her work for years and Belletrist provided the push. After finishing the torturously short South and West I figured I should turn to her fiction.
Play It As It Lays is not an easy novel. Joan Didion manages to construct a story that is at once intense and consumed with ennui. You feel as if you should be sprawled elegantly across a chaise long while reading the spare but piercing prose, or lying still in a sweaty hotel room bed out in the desert, like Maria, its protagonist.
Didion’s writing is unflinching and unemotional – a fact that often jars given the subject matter of the novel – mental illness, suicide, abortion – but curiously pulls you forward through it, down into the depths of its protagonist’s psychological unravelling. The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric ward, and then travels back through the events that led to her admittance there. Current and past events are split by the use of first and third person – a technique I have never seen applied as Didion uses it.
Maria is a failed actress living in a failed marriage. Her daughter, Kate suffers with some undefined disorder and so lives in a hospital away from her. Maria isn’t always allowed to see Kate when she wants to, and it remains unclear whether this is because of Carter, Kate’s father or because of the hospital staff. Maria and Carter are definitely getting a divorce, but whether or not they’ll actually break up remains in question.
Maria is unable to let Carter share in her suffering. His career is starting to take off, while hers is stalling – a fact for which she deeply resents him. They’re both cheating, though you imagine which of them is punished for it – Maria, obviously. When she falls pregnant by another man, Carter forces her into an abortion she didn’t choose. It’s a trauma that haunts her throughout the novel and one that she never discusses with anyone.
What Maria wants – the only thing she seems to care about at all, actually – is the ability to define her own life. She wants to live in the countryside with Kate and make jam. Instead she is passed between her husband and his friends, deemed by all unable to care for herself. They might be right, but that isn’t the point.
Early in their marriage, Carter and Maria made two films together. In the second, Maria plays a rape survivor fighting for justice for herself. The film was brought by a studio and distributed, but never particularly successful. Maria loved it and was so enamoured of her character’s ‘definite knack for controlling her own destiny’. The first film, called simply ‘Maria’ won awards at art festivals and is the one for which Carter first became known. ‘Maria’ is seventy four minutes of ‘Maria asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT’. Maria herself can’t bear to watch it. Her self-hatred runs so deep that even a loved one’s reflection of her causes her pain. The girl in the movie, she says ‘had no knack for anything.’
Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning – or lack thereof. In the sparse prose Didion narrates the action, but doesn’t cast judgement on it. Even in Maria’s worst moments we never really turn into the pantomime audience, hissing and booing from the side lines. Even in the presence of such action from other characters in the novel, Maria herself remains untouched by it. The novel isn’t really about deciding whether Maria is good or evil, so much as just immersing yourself in her psyche. Good and evil are labels that connote a certain level of meaning, after all, and to Maria, there is no such thing. Meaninglessness to Maria is like a secret only she is in on. This theme is apparent even from the very first line:
‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’
This first line is important as it serves as a sort of mission statement for the novel, and one of the only incidences in which Didion uses a question mark. This general lack of question marks shows Maria as a woman who sincerely believes that there are no answers left to be found. She is a person without curiosity, moving through the world because time passes, but not really participating in it.
Play It As It Lays is not a book for everyone. Nobody in the book is ‘likeable’, so if that sort of thing is important to you, you’re probably not going to get into it. But for me, lately, I have found I’m less interested in reading what is comfortable. And Play It As It Lays is about as uncomfortable as it gets.