Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Earlier this year, I read Joan Didion’s debut novel Run River. I loved the characters, the melancholy tone of this novel, its sense of place…I didn’t want it to end. All this left me keen to read more of Didion’s work, both her fiction and non-fiction. First published in 1970, Play It As It Lays was Didion’s second novel. It’s very accomplished, but it’s also very intense – a searing novel with a harrowing story at its heart.

IMG_2090

Play opens with a short chapter narrated by Maria. If we stick to the facts, Maria is a thirty-one-year-old model-turned-actress with a young daughter named Kate. Maria’s ex-husband, a film director by the name of Carter, put her in a couple of little movies, but she hasn’t worked for a few years. She’s in a psychiatric institution now, and the only thing that keeps her going is Kate. (Kate is mentally challenged and stuck in a potentially regressive treatment facility – we’re in the late ‘60s here.)

Maria tries to play along with the psychiatrists, to be ‘an agreeable player of the game,’ even though she knows they will misinterpret the facts. They wish to formulate reasons for her behaviour, make connections where none exist – that’s their job. The people at the institution are interested in her past, but Maria has trouble with her life ‘as it was’. She knows it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The majority of the remainder of the novel takes the form of a sequence of short, sharp chapters on the ‘as it was’. These are mostly written in the third person, which gives the story a sense of veracity and detachment as if we are observing snapshots of a selection of scenes from Maria’s past. The supposed reason for Maria’s confinement is revealed in the second chapter, a brief statement from one of Maria’s friends, Helene. But that’s not the most important thing about Maria’s story; at least I don’t think it is.

Maria’s world is diffuse and disordered; it’s populated by shallow friends, people like BZ, the film producer and his wife, Helene. Didion perfectly captures the mood of the period. It’s there in the description of the crowd Maria encounters at BZ and Helene’s parties: the ‘sulky young men’ BZ has met on his travels to Tangier and Acapulco; Helene’s friends complete with their Pucci silk shirts, ‘periodically tightened eye lines’ and ‘husbands on perpetual location’.

Carter (Maria’s ex) is portrayed as a cold, mean and ruthless man, ‘a dropper of friends and names and obligations’. Short staccato scenes from Maria and Carter’s relationship are threaded through the novel. These episodes are shot through with a strong sense of emotional distance, the feeling that Maria doesn’t know what to do or how to reach Carter. The following picture typifies the state of their contact – the couple have had one of their many arguments:

Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself. She did not know what she was doing in Baker. However it began it ended like that.

“Listen,” she would say.

“Don’t touch me,” he would say. (pg. 32)

Maria is plagued by fear, an unspeakable sense of peril in the everyday. She is haunted by the emotional fallout from a deeply traumatic event in her life, one she is struggling to come to terms with in her mind. (This episode is described in the novel in all its horrific detail.) She relies on drugs and alcohol to smother her dreams, to stop the nightmares from cutting through. There is a strong feeling of dislocation here as if Maria’s mind is disconnected from her body, both operating independently of another and with no clear direction. The following quote captures what I mean by this feeling of dislocation. Maria is calling a close friend, Les Goodwin, from a phone booth near a drive-in restaurant – as you may have guessed by now, there are other men in Maria’s life:

“Where’ve you been,” he said.

“Nowhere.” When she heard his voice she felt a rush of well-being. “I didn’t want to call you because –”

“I can’t hear you, Maria, where are you?”

“In a phone booth. I just wanted –”

“You all right?”

“No. I mean yes” A bus was shifting gears on Sunset and she raised her voice. “Listen. Call me.”

She walked back to the car and sat for a long while in the parking lot, idling the engine and watching a woman in a muumuu walk out of the Carolina Pines Motel and cross the street to a supermarket. The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in a trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing. She did not know why she had told Les Goodwin to call her. (pg. 66-67)

Following her split from Carter, Maria spends her days driving the California freeway. She has to be on the system by ten o’clock otherwise the day’s rhythm is all out of whack. She drives anywhere and everywhere; it creates an impression of momentum. Sometimes the freeway simply runs out leaving Maria in ‘a scrap metal yard in San Pedro’ or out in the middle of nowhere where the scorching roadway just stops. It’s an image that highlights the emptiness of Maria’s days at the wheel. Like Run River, I can’t imagine Play being set anywhere other than California. Didion gives the reader a vivid feel for the landscape: the images of distant mountains; the arid heat of the freeways; the diners and thrift marts dotted along the way.

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oli rockers creaked ominously. For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky. (pg. 76-77)

At the end of the day, Maria doesn’t know how to function, how to play the game of life:

I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?’ (pg. 10)

There comes a time when Maria imagines the life she might have had with Carter and Kate, something resembling the image of a normal family. It’s a heart-rending passage:

…but sometimes later, after he had left, the spectre of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been: Carter throwing a clear plastic ball filled with confetti, Kate missing the ball. Kate crying. Carter swinging Kate by her wrists. […] The images would flash at Maria like slides in a dark room. On film they might have seemed like a family. (pg. 137-138)

Play It As It Lays is a hard novel to describe, but it’s good; it’s blisteringly good. At times the prose and imagery are so intense they pierce the consciousness like a needle. Didion seems to have an innate ability to get inside the minds of women on the edge, women who are isolated and distanced from those around them. She writes about fragile, disconnected lives in a way that seems so raw yet strangely polished at the same time. At one point in Play, there’s a scene where Kate (Maria’s daughter) smashes a china doll against a large mirror – the floor is covered with pieces of ‘broken mirror and flesh-coloured ceramic’. It’s a metaphor for Maria’s existence, for the novel itself: a life fractured into a multitude of tiny jagged shards.

I’ve been reading this novel with Emma at Book Around the Corner – Emma’s review is here. It was Max’s review that prompted us to read Play.

I ought to finish now, so I’ll leave the final words on this brilliant yet brittle novel to Maria:

…I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up. (pg. 7)

Play It As It Lays is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy.

48 thoughts on “Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

  1. MarinaSofia

    Another excellent and thoughtful review, just like Emma’s. I do enjoy my damaged women on the edge, so it sounds like a shoo-in read for me (once I’ve done my #TBR20). I’ve liked everything I’ve tried by Joan Didion so far – but it’s been mainly non-fiction, so I want to try her fiction too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. You must try her fiction Didion’s fiction, it’s definitely your kind of read! In fact, the feeling of dislocation and fractured approach to the narrative reminded me of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I probably need to take a bit of a break from reading about women on the edge and ruinous marriages, but there is something terribly magnetic about these stories…

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        I too am attracted by those books, but then I wonder why I get gloomier and gloomier… Perhaps there’s a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God – or whatever we believe in – go I…’

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely encourage you to try some of her fiction. Technically speaking, I think Play is the more accomplished of the two novels I’ve read so far, but Run River is the one I’d love to revisit. I’m tempted to say start there as it’s a good entry point.

      Magical Thinking is on my shelf, but I’m going to have to work up to it as it’ll be a difficult read for me, possibly a little too close to the bone. I do want to read it though…it’ll be a question of finding the right moment.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can well imagine it being a difficult book to shake. I found it hard to switch off from reading this one as several of the images cut right through my mind. She’s an amazing writer, isn’t she? I just want to read everything she’s written. Some non-fiction next, I think!

      Reply
  2. erdeaka

    As always Jacqui, I like the way you recaptured the characters you read, especially when you reviewed Didion’s books.
    She seems to excel in describing troubled characters and difficult life, like the ones in Run River.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ratih. Yes, there are some similarities between the characters in Run River and Play – Emma’s review contains some excellent analysis on this. It leaves me curious to discover more about Didion’s own life experience…

      Reply
  3. susanosborne55

    I’ve read several of Didion’s non-fiction books but never a novel so must add this one to my list. Her writing is extraordinary – I like your description of it’s sharp intensity, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I need to swap with you as I’ve yet to make a start on her non-fiction! I did treat myself to a couple of her essay collections as part of my post-TBR20 binge, so there’s no excuse now.

      I think Play is an excellent novel, but by God it’s an intense and disturbing story. It’s incredibly impressive stuff though as Didion’s writing is just so damn good. Run River is a much quieter story, more melancholy in tone, and it’s the one I’d love to revisit at some stage.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Let me know your thoughts if you do get a chance to read it. I’d be interested to hear how you think it compares to some of her non-fiction.

          Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    This sounds great. I love the line that you quoted.

    Among many things that sound interesting, I cannot imagine how bad it would be to be stuck in such an institution knowing that the doctors had no idea as what they were doing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Are you thinking of the final quote in my review? That final line was the crux of it all for me. (That one and the line about Maria holding all the aces but with no real understanding of the ‘game’ of life.)

      It’s such a disturbing story, and it feels so terribly authentic. I could well imagine it happening in real life, especially in late-sixties California. The opening is very impactful and it takes a while to work out exactly what’s going on, but it grabs you by the throat from the get-go. The doctors are just trying to do their job, but there’s a sense that Maria is unreachable…

      Reply
  5. poppypeacockpens

    What an intriguing review – certainly sells it to me! Yet to read Didion so another new author to explore… both this one and Run River appeal

    I do love how your reviews seem to concentrate on past gems not just new releases…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. You have to read to her at some point and let me know what you think. She’s very strong on mood and that awful sense of detachment. I don’t know how she manages to convey so much in so few words…it’s really quite remarkable.

      It’s virtually all older novels here at the moment – Mary Costello’s Academy Street is probably the closest I’ve come to reading a recent release in the past few months! I very nearly read Dept. of Speculation as part of my TBR20, but that went out the window when I reshuffled the pack. ;)

      Reply
      1. poppypeacockpens

        I’ve got Dept of Spec on my hit list for this 3rd attempt of #TBR20 … but have to admit the earlier 20thC novels are a huge draw – got some Taylor, Drabble, Welty & Spark all beckoning

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great. Well, good luck with your third attempt – you’re over the halfway hump so not too far to go now! That’s a nice selection of writers you’ve got there. I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey (as you know), and her short stories are meant to be fab. Spark is on my list too. Enjoy!

          Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. I’ve read a *lot* of Didion’s books and loved them – but they’ve all been non-fiction! I would love to read her fiction, and I imagine it’s all quite hard edged. She’s a formidable writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, very much so…formidable is a great description. Play is definitely the more intense of the two I’ve read so far. It’s razor-sharp and makes for uncomfortable reading at times, but it’s an excellent novel nonetheless.

      I’m going to try her non-fiction next…Slouching and White Album managed to sneak their way into the house last month as part of the post-TBR20 splurge. :)

      Reply
  7. Emma

    Fantastic review, Jacqui. It gives a really good vision of the book. I agree with you, it’s good to start with Run River before reading this one.

    I’m not so severe with Carter in my billet but I think you’re right. He’s ruthless and part of Maria’s problem comes from him. However, living with Maria must have been a challenge too.

    Some parts are really difficult to read for a woman, I think.

    The novel has an incredible sense of place. You can feel the 60s and all the descriptions and references to the Californian landscape add to the atmosphere. It also shows a dual California: you’ve got the rural / early settlers side from Maria’s family and past (like for Lily and Everett in Run River) and the glamour side with Maria’s marriage and new friends in Hollywood.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I’m really glad we started with Run River before reading Play. I have you to thank for that as your excellent billet hooked me right in!

      I found it difficult to get a grip on Maria and Carter’s relationship as there’s a whole chunk of backstory missing from the narrative. And then the story comes in bursts with significant interruptions between episodes. I kept thinking of the image of a heartbeat on an ECG monitor: great peaks of intensity separated by flat periods (or gaps in the case of Didion’s narrative.)

      I’m so glad to have read this one with you as it’s fascinating to compare perspectives and to reference back to Max’s original review. It’s a tough read for sure…

      Didion’s sense of place and period is amazing, isn’t it? Great point about the contrast between the different facets of California…I loved your commentary on the connections between the two novels. Which of the two did you prefer? My head says Play is the better novel, but my heart is with Run River.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It is a disturbing story, not something you’d want to read if you’re feeling a bit low. She’s an amazing writer, definitely worthy of investigation.

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    Excellent post, Jacqui. Though I haven’t read this in years, it still sticks out as one of the great Los Angeles novels. That quotation you pull describing the landscape of the L.A. freeway is absolutely spot on. When I lived in L.A. Play It As It Lays even served as something of a fetish. It’s still impossible – probably for any Angeleno who’s read the book – to merge from the 101 South to the Harbor Freeway without thinking of Maria’s obsession with trying to cross all the lanes in one uninterrupted movement – not nearly as easy as it sounds. You might be interested in a not very good film – Welcome to L.A., by Alan Rudolph (and produced by Robert Altman) – that nonetheless has a Play It As It Lays type atmosphere and also features a Maria-type character (played by Geraldine Chaplin) – or rather Maria if she were older – who spends her days riding around the freeways (albeit in taxis).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott…and thank you for such a great insight on Los Angeles. I’ve never been, but Didion’s descriptions of the landscape and terrain seem so clear-eyed that it doesn’t surprise me to hear they feel authentic to you.

      Right then, Welcome to L.A. is going straight on the DVD list before I forget. Cheers for the recommendation as it’s not one I’m familiar with but it sounds like a great match for the novel. Have you seen the film adaptation of Play It As It Lays, the one with Tuesday Weld as Maria? Didion co-wrote the screenplay so it must be worth a look (unless you say otherwise!).

      Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    Dislocated, fractured, absolutely, spot on. Great landscape quote too. I’m delighted you liked this one, it’s simply superb isn’t it?

    Carter is interesting. Mostly we see him from Maria’s perspective, and I doubt she’d be easy to live with. I can imagine Maria being exhausting, or perhaps better draining.

    Such a great novel. Well worth a re-read some day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Her descriptions of the landscape are so vivid; it’s the same in Run River (I hope you have that somewhere in your TBR). I thought Play was extraordinary, incredibly impressive…a real tour de force. There are similarities with Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart (the fractured nature of the narrative; the sense of isolation in the marriage; the awful feeling of detachment), but I preferred Play. I would reread it, definitely…perhaps in five or ten years time to see how it stands up. Mind you, my heart is with Run River, that’s one I’d love to revisit – you have to read it (I’ll stop nagging now).

      Maybe I’ve been a bit hard on Carter, and it would have been interesting to hear a bit more about the early years of his relationship with Maria. There are so many gaps in the narrative, but I think Didion knows what she’s doing there. In some ways, I wonder if those interruptions add to the intensity by serving to sharpen the impact of the things we do get to see?

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I think the power comes from the omissions. Without the white space it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. I definitely agree that Didion knows what she’s doing with the gaps.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It just underlines her skill as a writer, doesn’t it? I’d like to try some of her non-fiction next, but there’s also A Book of Common Prayer to consider. Just checked the tweets from our twitter conversation with Gilly a couple of months back and she placed Common Prayer ahead of Play in her order of preference for Didion’s work. It sounds increasingly like a must-read.

          Reply
  10. Guy Savage

    I have a thing for books set in asylums/mental institutions, but I’m not sure I’d like this. I have Run River to read first anyway, and then I’ll see what I think at that point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s worth clarifying that we’re only in the psychiatric institution for the first ten pages of the novel. After that, we’re right out of there as the story takes us back to events in Maria’s past, and we don’t return to the unit. I don’t know if you’d like it; it’s hard to say…

      I loved Run River – glad to hear you have it in your possession as it’s a great place to start with Didion’s fiction. There are some similarities between the two novels in terms of their themes; both feature a woman isolated in her marriage, for instance. That said, they differ a fair bit in tone and style as Run River is a much quieter, more melancholy novel than Play.

      Reply
  11. litlove

    I have Didion’s essays and have never thought of her as a fiction writer – but your excellent review shows me I should! I rather like the women-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown genre, though it seems maybe a bit much to have both mother and daughter as troubled souls? Though that’s probably realistic!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s a lot of love out there for Didion’s non-fiction (which I still need to get to!) but I’ve been very impressed with the two novels I’ve read so far. It’s getting to the stage where I just want to read everything she’s ever written.

      If you like the woman-on-the-verge genre, then I would definitely recommend Play It As It Lays (along with Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment). It does, however, make for an intense reading experience. Maria is a terrible place in her life. Her marriage is toxic, and other terrible things have happened along the way, but I can’t help feeling that the challenges faced by Kate have contributed to Maria’s state of mind. A tough story, but it could happen…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you must, although I can relate to the pause in book buying! Funnily enough, certain aspects of Play reminded me a little of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, especially that awful feeling of detachment and isolation. And there is a sense that both Maria (in Play) and Joana (in the Lispector) are merely existing rather than participating in life in a broader way.

      Reply
  12. Alice

    I love Didion, but I’ve tried to read her fiction before and it’s just not clicked (which made me sad, because I wanted to love it) – maybe Play It As It Lays would be a better start.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. JacquiWine Post author

    I think it’s a remarkable novel, but it is very intense. I’d love to know what you make of it should you decide to give it a shot. Which of her other novels have you tried?

    Reply
  15. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Pingback: Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s