Play It As It Lays isn’t for pussies. Published first in 1970, the novel is considered an indictment of Hollywood culture, but it’s much more than that. Its capacity to terrify you into deep self-reflection turns on the revolting nihilism it portrays. Are there people like this? You know that there are; at different stages of your life you might have been one of them. Maybe you still are. And if you’re a woman struggling to find your way to full personhood in this culture, here and now in 2011, you may find yourself in an uncomfortable state of recognition.
I love this book because it’s hard and true. It scares and haunts me. I dreamed of mushroom clouds in the desert after I read it. I love that Didion’s 214 pages showcase writing at its most honest, unflinching, and uncensored. It’s a kick in the gut. And once in a while we need a good kick to wake us from our fog and to challenge our complacency.
This is the story of Maria Wyeth (pronounced Mar-eye-a), a woman who has run out of both desire and motives, whose identity is predicated on her relationship to others, primarily her husband, for she is the wife of Carter Lang, a hot Hollywood director. Maria’s own acting career has tanked and Carter has left her. She is 36 and fears losing her looks. Her daughter is institutionalized with an unspecified illness, probably autism. Her parents are dead. She takes lovers, one of whom she does love, but can’t have because he is married. She has an abortion. Maria grieves her life. She cries all the time.
Today we’d call Maria out as a prime candidate for Prozac, but in her time, the 1960s, Hollywood types depended on other drugs to numb themselves, and Maria indulges in plenty of them, mostly barbiturates. But lest you think Maria’s depression a sign of weakness, think again. It is in fact her method of resistance against a world where “nothing applies.” What I like about Maria is that she is more aware than anyone of the lunatic emptiness around her. She’s the only one who sees it for what it is. That’s why the others think she’s crazy. In fact, her response is rational. But of course none of us wants Maria’s life. And that is the point. Our lives are not Maria’s, but are they any more meaningful? Plenty of Marias exist in our reality TV saturated pop culture. Are you a Real Housewife of Atlanta? Or a kid on the make in Jersey Shore? Maria is Carter Lang’s wife. A pretty woman who sometimes acts and is a good lay at a party. What’s the difference between Snooki and Maria? Awareness, that’s what. Maria would never get a spray tan.
Told mostly in a close third person from Maria’s point of view, Play It As It Lays draws us into a mind on the cusp of madness and suicide. At one point Maria learns she’s pregnant and tells Carter. He wants to know how she knows for sure and she says she went to a doctor, not their regular doctor. How did she find this doctor? “He was near Saks,” she whispered finally. “I was having my hair done at Saks.” Didion steals your breath with such moments.
She is also a master of subtext. Take this exchange between Maria and her agent:
“Let’s get to the bottom line, Maria, if Carter were around he’d say the same thing. You want to work, I’ll arrange for Morty Landau to see film.”
“Carter is around.”
There was a silence.
“All I meant, Maria, was that Carter’s on location. All I meant.”
We know more about Maria’s state of mind regarding her imperiled marriage from these short lines of dialogue than we ever could from paragraphs of Maria’s internal mind chatter or from a simple narrative statement about her denial.
Less is always more. It’s a spare, unflinching novel that occupies the empty landscape of southern California and Nevada. This isn’t the storied California, the mythical land of orange groves, healthy sunshine, and endless opportunity. It’s a place of death. Of Santa Ana winds and fires; white light and drought.
Yet despite everything, Maria doesn’t kill herself when given the opportunity. At the end, a hospitalized Maria writes in her own voice:
“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what nothing means, and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
Maria wrestles with the question of existence in a world without meaning and decides a life is better than no life. You calculate the odds and play the hand you’re dealt. Exactly the kind of thinking one might expect from a woman from Silver Wells, a Nevada desert town that no longer exists, a site for underground nuclear tests. She is like Sisyphus and as Camus postulated: one must imagine that Sisyphus is made happy by his daily struggle.
Play It As It Lays is a difficult read despite the easy flow of language and plenty of white space between each short chapter. It hurts and it’s hard. It’s an alarm clock startling us awake. It does for us what all great fiction manages to do: tells the truth. It allows us to go on by exposing our despair at our own tragic existence in a culture where nothing we do seems to matter. Like Maria, we roll the die one more time and play it as it lays.