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Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays

Financially Didion did very well out of this book – a big advance and film rights – but critically the reviews were decidedly mixed, with some critics seeing it as your standard Hollywood actress falling apart novel while others thought it was an excellent portrayal of a twentieth century woman in crisis novel. Maria Wyeth states categorically I am what I am. To look for”reasons” is beside the point. And that, to a great extent, is what this novel is about.

The story is told from four perspectives. We first hear Maria’s story, then that of her friend Helene, then that of Carter Lang, her ex-husband and a film director and then the rest of the book is told by a third-person narrator. She has been institutionalised (as has Kate, her four-year old daughter, who seems to have some chemical imbalance in her brain). She worked as a model in New York. While there, first her mother and then her father dies, the former maybe having killed herself. She meets Carter Lang. They move to Hollywood and she becomes an actress and then mother to Kate. She clearly does not really care for Carter or, indeed, anyone else, except for Kate. When she becomes pregnant again, but not by her husband, her husband persuades her to have an abortion, which has a profound effect on her. She ends up drifting around, drinking, drugs and casual sex but everything comes to a head when her friend BZ overdoses on barbiturates in her hotel room. At the end she talks to no-one but knows, as she says, what nothing means.

Nihilism is, of course, a long-established theme in literature. But, as BZ says to her just before he takes his fatal dose Some day you’ll wake up and you just won’t feel like playing any more. For BZ, Maria and, indeed, for most of the characters, either you play or there is nothing. Maria’s only”play” is with Kate. For BZ, there is nothing. Critics complained that there are no redeeming characters in the book, no-one you could love. If that is their view of literature, then they should stick to romance novels. Didion’s great skill is to show a segment of society, where people are caught up in this sense of lack of purpose, whether it is relationships, job or just life in general and her portrayal of Maria is a superb depiction of this.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux