Book Review: Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion

28 Jul

I love Joan Didion. From her 1979 essay on migraines, “In Bed,” to her 2004 memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, she is a brilliant writer and chronicler of American society. Her writing is precise and economical in all the right ways, often anxious, and always to the point – features I appreciate, it will probably surprise no one, in people as much as in text.

Play it As it Lays (1970), is one of many, many books I’ve received from Paperback Swap in the past three years, though I only got around to it recently, which is pretty much the story of my life in reading. I came across it during the aforementioned weeding the other day and decided, finally, to plough through it.

If, at this point in time, I was filled with despair and ennui, this novel might have been brilliant. Instead, it failed to penetrate my mysterious, high-energy, go-go-go state of mind. (Please don’t ask me how I came upon this state. I haven’t a clue. It’s not drugs. Sadly.)

Nonetheless, when the main character states on page seven, “I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was,” I was charmed.

And then I fell asleep.

We are introduced to the main character, Maria Wyeth, in a monologue rife with references to playing cards – analogies her father used to teach her to cope with the proverbial hand life dealt her, albeit one in which her mother dies in a car crash in the desert and is “torn up” by coyotes. Now 31, Maria is a used-up actress, divorced from a man she claims to love but cannot muster emotions for, and separated from her young daughter, Kate. Her estrangement from the social world of family, lovers and friends is apparent from the first few pages – she seems disconnected and emotionally flattened, driving compulsively on the interstate, traveling daily from nowhere to nowhere. Slowly we learn that her marriage to the adulterous and impatient Carter Lang fell apart shortly after Kate, who has “soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain,” was placed into a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

This is just the top of the slope from which Maria’s decline begins.

Shortly thereafter we hear from Maria’s vapid friend Helene, who is a friend in name only, as well as from Carter himself about Maria’s long fall, until the narrative changes to third person for the remainder of the novel.

If I’m honest with you, I will admit that I cannot accurately describe the plot. While I appreciated Didion’s characteristically spare writing, the story mystified me. I recognized that Maria was in psychic pain – indeed, this is evident on every page – but the events of the story seemed steeped in some sort of evasive mystery.

(For instance, I have since read in summaries of this novel that Maria aborted a baby, spent a night in jail for car theft and drug possession, and took part in the suicide of her friend BZ. You’d think these would be plot points I’d remember. Alas.)

It is clear that Play it As it Lays, like all of Didion’s writing, was carefully conceived. Called “disturbing” by more reviews than I can count, I imagine, for its time, it was disturbing; it likely hit the neck of 1970 America like a guillotine. But, to my disappointment, I don’t believe it has stayed as powerful over time.

I do love Joan Didion, but she is at her best when she is unsubtle. In the end, all I  knew absolutely was that Maria, a commiserate actress, could not maintain the act any longer. In lesser hands such a tired character would have been disastrous – Maria was not. But there was something oppressive about her nihilism that was too bleak.

If sometimes life is, in fact, manufactured and disenchanting, sometimes the two of spades, well. I believe that’s just one of 52 cards in the deck. What Maria never seems to understand despite all her father’s instruction is that it’s the aces you have to look for and hope for, to keep yourself sane.

Really, this is true in life and in reading.

* * * * * * * *
This book was originally published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 1970. If you’d like to purchase this book, why not support independent booksellers? Follow the link below, and happy reading.

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

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One Response to “Book Review: Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion”

  1. Camille August 1, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    I read this one six or so years ago and my reaction was pretty similar. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was one of my go-to pleasure books during college, but Play It As It Lays (the only fiction of hers I’ve gotten around to reading) felt bleak in a thoroughly uninteresting way, you know?

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