Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion was published in 1970. I decided to read it based on its inclusion on a literature syllabus of DFW’s and Brett Easton Ellis’s claim that he wouldn’t be a writer without it.

The book begins in a mental hospital, after the action of the novel. We follow Maria through the hell of Hollywood. She is an actress who has been in two pictures, both directed by her husband, who is embarking on a successful career. Those two pictures were a couple of years ago though, and years are lifetimes when we’re talking about the silver screen.

Maria is the center of the book. She tells the story, and she is the story. She sleeps with people polite enough to ask. She is conflicted and base and sad. She has a daughter, with her husband Carter. And she aborts a pregnancy that did not involve Carter—the pregnancy didn’t. But the abortion did: it was Carter’s idea, even the doctor (used very loosely here—I mean, more accurately he’s a guy who performs abortions in hotel rooms) was recommended by Carter, because he was the “only man in Los Angeles County who did clean work.”

So from the mental hospital Maria recounts a short period of her life pretty closely, but she also gives her childhood, which she tries to argue as nondescript or unimportant. She has a problem with the past, calling it “as it was”: “I have trouble with as it was.” But all of the parts of her past were quite constructive of her character: her mother and father, his penchant for craps, and the desert she was raised in.

I don’t like anyone in this novel, but I feel for Kate (if I really have to choose), Maria and Carter’s daughter, who is also in some sort of mental hospital—you know, like daughter, like mother.

Something that most people talk about when they speak of this novel (or Didion) is language. It’s akin to Hemingway, which makes for an easy read (as does the fact that the novel is just over 40,000 words). The book just feels so base and despairing and sad and impenitent that I stopped caring about Maria and the other characters (some cardboard).

Didion seems to comment on language throughout the book with the following sentence, and variants of it: “Maria said nothing.” This seriously happens like forty times, in a short book. Characters respond by saying nothing, which certainly, as we know, still communicates. I like that.

I liked the language, and I liked Didion, but I do not like her book. However, again, it’s very short, and other people love it. So maybe you should try it.

Some representative quotes follow, uncommented upon:

First lines: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.

“He kept his eyes on the highway and his foot hard on the accelerator. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled. The late sun glazed the Pacific. The wind burned on her face. Once they were off the Coast Highway he pulled over to the curb and stopped the car.”

“Maria closed her eyes at the instant BZ’s hand hit Helene’s face. ‘Stop it,’ she screamed.

BZ looked at Maria and laughed. ‘You weren’t talking that way last night,’ he said.”

A final thought, which is reflective, and thus might not concern the unconcerned: This book is a lot like Brett Easton Ellis’s first book. And he says as much—that he was influenced by it, that Less than Zero wouldn’t exist without Play it as it Lays, etc. I read Ellis’s book around seven years ago, but man oh man, do I like it so much more than this book. Even flipping through LtZ today, I still read passages that move me, that I love. So his book could be better, but I think it ignorant to not consider that there may be some sexism within me, concerning my reading of characters. I do not like Didion’s Maria very much—I like her at the beginning, but that’s just conditioned behavior. I do like Ellis’s Clay. And they are not very different. So perhaps I wish to sympathize with female characters, however Maria prevents this. And perhaps I expect to condemn some male characters. This certainly rings true in my marriage.

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About Tyler
At this time, there is nothing more beautiful than the gospel. The ways in which it's manifested are to be received with attentiveness and compassion and awareness. "A closed mind is a dying mind." - Edna Ferber

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