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Joan Didion’s 'Play It As It Lays': A Meditation on Nothingness

A trailblazer for the literary, film, and journalism world, Joan Didion’s passing is an immense loss. I first came across Joan Didion’s work in high school and I distinctly remember feeling that her writing was the sort I had always longed to read, but never knew existed. Didion, in every sense of the word, was cool. Undoubtedly, we see this coolness exude in those iconic photographs of Didion perched against her Corvette Stingray, as a cigarette dangles from her fingers. But Didion’s appeal transcended beyond a superficial embodiment of cool. It was her distinctive voice that revealed poise and intellect, which was always reflected in the exactitude of her work.

While Didion is best known for her essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and White Album, her fiction tends to be overlooked amongst her arsenal of journalistic work. News of her passing made me reflect on the legacy she leaves behind, how she forever changed the craft of writing whilst also redefining what it meant to be an observer of culture. With this lingering in my mind, I decided to revisit one of my favourite Joan Didion works of all time — Play It As It Lays, a novel that endures long after the last page.

Joan Didion sitting in her car. Image credit: Julian Wasser

Published in 1970, the novel follows former actress and model Maria Wyeth as she descends into madness. In the beginning, we learn that Maria has been admitted into a psychiatric ward for reasons not yet known. Maria’s past is revealed in fragments following her childhood in small-town Nevada, her rise to stardom in New York City, the decline of her career, and her troubled marriage with Carter Lang, a famous Hollywood director. Hovering on the perimeters of the plot, Maria also longs for her estranged daughter Kate, who has been institutionalised due to an unnamed illness.

Oscillating between first and third-person narrations the story unfolds like one long, weary dream sequence. Maria numbs herself with barbiturates and drifts in and out of consciousness. A large portion of the novel curiously observes Maria compulsively driving through California freeways and desert landscapes, void of any particular destination.

“Maria drove the freeway… She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of the Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour.” (p. 14)

Akin to the likes of The Great Gatsby, Play It As It Lays is a sharp mediation on American moral decay. Painting a lucid vision of show business in the 1960s, the novel chronicles Maria’s disillusionment with Hollywood and the Dionysian energies that permeate it. A rotating cast of big-time movie producers, directors, modelling agents and actors alike spend their days obsessing over the trivialities of their public image. They self-destruct, have meaningless sex, drink and take drugs in excess amounts. Nothing applies and any questioning for a motive is countered by the same nihilistic sentiment— “Why not?”.

Didion expertly juxtaposes a sunny, utopian portrait of Los Angeles with a darker, impending force of nature: an obliterating abyss. Maria is haunted by this idea of nothingness, (“I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes”). And yet, paradoxically so, her acknowledgement of the meaningless is a point of relief, perhaps of comfort.

“One thing in my defence, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.” (p. 213)

Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning — or lack thereof. To the characters of the novel life seems to be a mere game in which arbitrary rules must be followed. Maria, a participant in chaos, maintains at arm's length from it all. And strangely enough, you aren’t inclined to judge her for it either. Didion weaves journalistic conventions through her fiction, precisely narrating the action without casting her readers with a predetermined judgement. The book isn’t really about discerning Maria’s morality so much as it is a deep dive into her psyche. The blurb encapsulates this perfectly, its ambiguity lies “in a place beyond good and evil.” The notion of Good versus Evil implies that these labels possess a degree of meaning, but to Maria, there is no such thing. An acceptance of the banal serves as shield and armour — it’s a sinister joke only she is in on. Didion makes this clear from the very opening:

‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’ (p. 1)

Play It As It Lays is bleak, harrowing, and often disturbing — yet nevertheless in true Didion fashion, it is a novel of excess truths. Since its original publication over five decades ago, writers of all genres have sought to emulate the intimate cadence and nuances of Didion’s work in their own prose. Amongst her imitators is contemporary icon Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel Less Than Zero (another personal favourite) grapples with kindred themes of alienation and dissonance, opening poignantly with “people are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”

Certainly, Didion wasn’t the only writer to personify the California scene, but she managed to document its raw essence with precision, a literary talent that has yet to be matched.

Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor


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