[Epub] ➞ Play It as It Lays By Joan Didion – Saudionline.co.uk

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10 thoughts on “Play It as It Lays

  1. says:

    "I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what when out on the last. I no longer believe that."
    - Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

    description (

    Warning: This book is not to be read if suicidal, heavily medicated, driving, pregnant, or if you ever dream of walking out, alone, into the Nevada desert and not coming back. This book is pure existential peril. I remember when I was four being specifically afraid of our church's bathroom. I remember thinking the church was hallowed ground. Protected by some benign force. Nothing could get me in the church. I was safe. But I'd sit alone, in a stall, in the bathroom, and look at the white tile, white grout, and see the dark drain on the floor. I'd imagine all the terror that existed under the Church. The snakes that were waiting to crawl through the drain. The devil waiting to pull me into the unsanctified, unhallowed, shit-filled sewers. Yeah, this book made me think of that empty feeling, that feeling that even in safe places there were gaps, snakes, sewers, and darkness.

    This book also reminds me a bit of a combination of The Great Gatsby (but told by Daisy in California in the 1960s) and Less Than Zero (but told by Blair and Julian's parents). Actually, hell, the book could be F. Scott and Zelda in the 1960s. Anyway, I get a weird F. Scott and Bret Easton Ellis vibe, with perhaps just a little of Cormac McCarthy's cold Western, existential dread thrown in for flavor. It is one of those novels that is near perfect and also a razor blade under your tongue. It is dangerous and sharp and makes you nervous to find out what is next.

    There are snakes and cracks everywhere. Plants die. Memory fades. Nothing matters. Well, O.K. Joan Didion's prose matters. It matters a hell of a lot. Joan Didion's prose just might be one reason to keep living. To keep fighting. To keep turning the damn page and rolling the damn dice.


  2. says:

    “There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”

     photo Joan20Didion_zpsxckspaho.jpg
    Joan Didion

    Whenever Maria called, it was as if the ringing of the phone heralded the end of any conviviality I might have been harboring. I always had the impression when I talked with her that the Fun to Be Around Maria was dying in another room, and all I was left with was the beautiful corpse.

    She was beautiful. Even though we had all seen changes to her appearance recently. So beautiful, in fact, she could still get acting jobs without too much trouble. I could see this all ending soon because she was so morose that her mood permeated the whole movie set. She had become so lost, so indifferent to everything. She was a zombie, long before Hollywood became infatuated with them.

    Her relationship with men was not particularly complicated. They wanted to sleep with her, and she was rather indifferent as to whether she slept with them or not. When we had first met, I’d “seduced” her while blinded by her glamour and allurement. It was only after we were entangled that I realized that all of that was only skin deep.

    “By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.”

    She had leaned on one elbow and shared that revelation with me. Her hair was still rummaged from my fingers. Her lipstick was smeared from my lips. There was something gone from her. The worms in her head had eaten into the core of her. The flame that had made her a star was nothing, but ashes. I left her with vestiges of misery clinging to me as if I’d been tainted by her own unhappiness.

    But we remained friends.

    I worried about her and worried about myself whenever I knew I had to see her. Things weren’t going well with her husband, Carter, or with her other lovers for that matter. They all were finding it harder to find the woman that first made them want her. Her mantra of late was: “I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.”

    Her circle of friends continued to take her calls because we were all afraid that by not answering we might be putting her life in danger. Someone so miserable had to be suicidal. It was like a guillotine hanging over all of us, waiting for her to decide when and how. It was frustrating to see someone who had been given so much not being able to find any way to enjoy the life that many desired.

    I’d been drinking one night after losing yet another part that would have insured many years of future success when she called. Her unhappiness fueled the fire of my own dejection. I heard myself scream into the phone, “For all our sakes just get it over with.” I’d slammed the phone down and poured myself a couple of fingers more of scotch. I couldn’t afford to know Maria anymore. It was too debilitating, too disheartening, and inspired too many ugly thoughts of resentment. I wanted her melancholy to be left to song.

    Remorse wrapped crumpled newsprint around all my further thoughts.

    If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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  3. says:

    All right, let's discuss...

    It has been a month since I read this little ditty, and in that one month's time, it has managed to lose a star. Because honestly, I can't give a book 5 stars just because I couldn't put it down, just because it was a "quick read." If that was the standard, every Jodi Picoult book I've ever read would be given 5 stars.

    When it comes down to it, while I did thoroughly enjoy this book, it isn't one that's going to stay with me through the ages. It isn't one I'm going to recommend to you or you or you. Although I'm sure you'd enjoy it. Or not.

    One of my GR friends told me that this book is a favorite of The National front man/songwriter Matt Berninger (I haven't been able to find corroboration of this on the interwebs, but I'll take your word for it). Loving The National like I do, I figured I'd give it a shot.

    I guess in retrospect this book feels a little self-indulgent to me. It's a story of a poor sad little actress with nothing but a lot of money and a lot of time on her hands. Ever met a beautiful girl with dead eyes and an expressionless face who doesn't care about anything or anyone? Well that's Maria Wyeth for you. Her world is a bleak one that you really shouldn't visit for very long, because she's the kind of girl who will suck the life right out of you. Unless you're a nihilist. Then you should pull up a chair and stay awhile; you'll feel right at home.

    ****
    This has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but you should listen to it anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FIw7E...

    ****
    March 20, 2017 - I was right. I remember nothing about this book. I should take away another star!


  4. says:

    Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act. An imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.

    Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, slaps down at your soul's kitchen table and announces itself, not loudly, but in a voice that crawls under your skin, not really caring whether or not you want to see anyone, and lights a cigarette. In between noxious exhales, it tells you some version of the truth.

    Maria Wyeth's story, told in shifting first and close third person, is a 20th century existential tragedy, a sort of American The Stranger, in which Maria is Meursault and Los Angeles, Algiers; a psychiatric hospital stands in for a prison; there is a Nevada desert instead of a North African beach.

    At thirty-one, Maria is an actress of fading relevance with an impending divorce and a beloved four-year-old daughter in a care facility for the developmentally disabled (oh, my heart stuttered at the term 'retarded' used throughout the book). No one at the institution combs Kate's hair and the sad tangles Maria tries to smooth out during her visits are somehow emblematic of the chaos in her own life.

    The chaos isn't a busy one. It isn't an overflow of demands. It is the chaos of nothingness. “By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” Maria has become paralyzed by life, by the emptiness of her career and her relationships, where friends exchange each other as lovers as often as they exchange yesterday's soiled underwear for today's clean pair. She has had her insides scraped clean of a child conceived not in love, but in desperate boredom, and that act—the back alley abortion so terribly, graphically evoked here, remember, this is the late 1960s—is the ultimate creation of empty chaos.

    Maria finds solace traveling the freeways that criss-cross this City of Angels. Cruising the nothingness of the tarmac is the only time she feels safe and in control.

    Yes, this is a wrenching read. But so brilliant. The multiple points-of-view are deftly handled, the lightest touch bringing in this character or that. Didion's writing, with its echoes of Hemingway and McCullers, is spare and unflinching. The chapters are short and white space is left on the page, reflecting the white space in Maria's life that she tries to fill with alcohol, sex, acting, driving.

    Few novels have taken me so deeply inside one character, injecting me into her bloodstream, so that I breathe with her, see through her eyes. I love Maria, I hate her, I want to protect her, I want her out of my life.

    Time has done nothing to diminish the power of Maria's story, yet Play It As It Lays is a fascinating time capsule of feminist literature. Highly recommended.


  5. says:

    Don't quite know how she did it, but it's rare I come across a novel that I found so alienating and distant, yet so warm at the same time. Didion's Play it as it lays which takes place across Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas is full of excess truths that dart across it's pages more like a prophecy. And it seemed to me to do that thing that feels impossible: it connects to readers who are not of the ilk of the characters.

    Didion opens proceedings in not the greatest of places one would want to be - a mental institution, with a not unfamiliar piece of wisdom that sometimes the people on the inside are sometimes wiser than the people on the outside. Maria, an ex-model & Actress, a sort of anti‐heroine, is the main point of interest throughout the novel, actually, going one step further - she is the novel. Even though she is an expert on feeling and being nothing, and coming from nowhere (well, of course she comes from somewhere, that would be Silver Wells, Nevada). With a non-linear narrative, we observe parts of Maria’s life in flashback, seeing certain things in real time leads her to grab hold of the happy moments from another time and place.

    She is a burnt‐out case and that's putting it mildly. Maria goes through the motions of continual emptiness, she tries to keep her career alive after starring in two films directed by her estranged husband, Carter Lang , but she is rarely clear headed. Maria goes to parties and is easy prey for anyone who wants to bed her, and even has a casual affair with a friend's husband. The bulk of the story basically follows Maria on a sad downward spiral that eventually leads to........? not too sure.....a kind of wisdom I suppose.

    But then this is never really a novel with any concrete conclusions, lots of things are left hanging in the balance, and I think it's all the better for it.

    Didion shows us how someone deals with their own disintegration, although Maria is constantly in denial that things are falling apart, she races around the freeways driving at high speed to at least keep her reflexes and attention in tact, but living on a cocktail of drugs just to get through the day shows a woman continually battling the demons within.

    Through the fog, there is actually a high intelligence in her observations and connections. She uses the language with the ease, control, and virtuosity, that comes from a natural grace. When Maria speaks of her little daughter with an unspecified mental imbalance, what might have been sentimental garbage, is so powerfully moving and so true.

    Reading of a young woman wanting to destroy herself was never going to be comfortable, and it isn't. Didion's searing take on Hollywood is as unforgiving as the showbiz world itself. Bleak, sometimes harrowing, poignant, but always engrossing, I found this to be one of the most realistic pieces of fiction from a woman's point of view I have read for ages, with the use of dialogue that even had me thinking along the lines of Raymond Carver. Others have said it's a bad novel by a good writer, like it was written out of a lazy insufficient impulse by someone who doesn't know how to handle all that talent and skill. I have to disagree. This didn't just evaporate from my consciousness, and any novel that strongly stays with you whilst getting on with the day, is in my eyes the signs of a decent piece of storytelling, which this simply was to me.

    The fact I hadn't read an American novel for God knows how long also helped, it was like re-discovering life across the pond all over again.


  6. says:

    Anyone still wondering why Dave Chappelle would walk out on a $50 million TV deal with Comedy Central to go into semi-retirement hasn't read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. All the answers are here.

    There is such a thing as a novel missing me at whatever point I'm at in my life. But there's also the kismet of a novel careening into me at the moment I'm crossing the same intersection the author is driving through. A month ago, I was reading an oral history of the '80s movie Masters of the Universe and in addition to insight on Dolph Lundgren or how a toy company destroys a successful product line, this comment from Chelsea Field, who played Teela in the movie, about co-star Courtney Cox stuck in my memory.

    "Luck always plays a big role in everything. Being in the right place at the right time. Getting the right script for the right show. I’ll tell you something funny. This must have been a little bit after Masters. And Courtney--she and I stayed in touch--she lived in Hollywood and I lived over in Burbank. So sometimes if I had an interview over in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, I’d stop by her place and we’d read lines together. I’d go by her house and have a cup of tea before I hit my audition.

    And if it was a scene where I had to muster up tears or something she’d just be looking at me like, “Oh my god, how do you do that? How do you do that, Chelsea?' And I’d look at her and I’d be like, 'you go to class. You’re welcome to come to mine. Would you like to go with me?' And literally this was her answer: 'Oh no, I just have to get lucky once.' And I’d be like, 'what? No, come to class.' And she’d be like 'No, really, I just need to get lucky once.' That was her philosophy."

    Bully for Courtney Cox and Friends, but if life is a lucky bet, what happens to those who realize they don't have the energy to keep playing the game?

    Joan Didion's 1970 novella Play It As It Lays doesn't try to expose the dark side of life in the fast lane with salacious melodrama or thinly veiled celebrities acting out soap opera; she let Jacqueline Susann do that. Didion implodes that live fast/die young lifestyle into a numbing entropy. The novel is centered on and sometimes narrated by a woman telling her story from a place where mental health professionals present her with inkblots and her visitors have to sign in.

    My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me "Mrs. Lang," but I never did. Age: thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure out what went wrong.)

    Maria was born and raised in Nevada, the only child of a gambling father with great expectations and big dreams in zinc mines, cattle ranches, ski resorts or motels he bought or won but that never paid off big. Maria grew up in a town her father owned called Silver Wells (pop: 28) with her mother and her father's business partner. Graduating from high school in Tonopah with her mother's looks and her father's spirit, Maria moves to New York for acting lessons.

    In the beginning, Maria's gamble pays off in ways her parents could only have dreamed of. A successful modeling career segues into the lead role in a movie called Angel Beach, in which Maria played a girl raped by a motorcycle gang. The movie is a big hit. Next comes marriage to her director, an up-and-coming talent named Carter Lang, and a multitude of glamorous acquaintances, most of them toxic, including her husband's producer BZ and BZ's wife, Helene.

    With a disabled daughter she cannot care for and an estranged husband away on location, Maria spends much of her time driving the freeways of Los Angeles in her Corvette. When she feels like talking, she's contradicted. She tells her agent she wants to work, he tells her she doesn't. She tells her husband she wants to give marriage another try, he tells her she doesn't act like it. Opportunities come and go. Life begins to pass Maria by while she stands watching it like a film extra.

    Play It As It Lays is the first book I've read where nearly every sentence could be the first sentence of the book.

    -- So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these.

    -- What happened was this: I looked all right (I'm not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I'm telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights.

    -- In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway.

    -- "Tell me who you've seen," she said.

    -- At four that afternoon, after a day spent looking at the telephone and lighting cigarettes and putting the cigarettes out and getting glasses of water and looking at the telephone again, Maria dialed the number.

    One of the pleasures in any novel is discovering an author who has possession of a skeleton key that unlocks secrets. John Steinbeck has that ability for me. So does Elmore Leonard, in more subtle and sly ways. Joan Didion, the political journalist, author, screenwriter and wife of late novelist John Gregory Dunne, taps into that reservoir of hidden currents here. Didion wasn't reporting anything new; Maria Wyeth's meltdown was preceded by many starlets of the '20s, '30s and '40s but since the publication of the novel, has recurred over and over again -- for men as well as women - on the level of a Biblical parable.

    Because Play It As It Lays doesn't conform to a linear progression of cause and effect -- Maria refuses to address why the things that have happened to her happened to her -- Didion is free to roam where she pleases and strike where she pleases, jumping in at different stages in Maria's life or telling episodes from different perspectives. The novel is minimal, thrilling, brutally honest, abnormally perceptive and breathlessly good.

    Anyone still wondering why Dave Chappelle would walk out on a $50 million TV deal with Comedy Central to go into semi-retirement, or what's going on in Hollywood, can get the short answer in this clip from Chappelle's visit to Inside the Actor's Studio in November 2008. Read Play It As It Lays for more details.


  7. says:

    So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body).

    Which author could possibly begin a novel with the words:

    What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.

    Well surprisingly enough Joan Didion. And these words set in motion the inevitable direction that this book is going to take.

    When Didion wrote this book, she was thirty-five and had moved a few years before with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to Los Angeles where they were to spend twenty years working in the film industry;

    The review on the back cover portrays quite succinctly the atmosphere of the setting of this book:

    A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, “Play It as It Lays” captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.

    This was the period when the pill for contraceptive purposes had been in place for nearly a decade. This was meant to emancipate women and stop the worry of unnecessary pregnancies, however, as with many “modern” occurrences in life, problems did occur.

    Maria (“that is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset” – I love this attention to detail!) Wyeth is a thirty-one year old, somewhat failed actress, married to, and then divorced from Carter, a film director. She is indeed cool at times in trying to keep her emotions in check but nevertheless she fails miserably.

    When the book begins, she is in some kind of psychiatric hospital and prior to this her friends had been so concerned for her safety, that when an intolerable situation occurred she inevitably turned up there. I found her entire lifestyle terrifying. Speed on the freeway was of major importance to her – she drove to places like someone demented, like a bat out of hell; it seemed that she had to keep the adrenaline flowing. Then her mood could unaccountably turn to another extreme with the realisation that life was futile and meant nothing. She cried a lot and on one occasion bled a lot. That was a mesmerising part of this book. Sex came and went and was all rather meaningless. The relationship with her husband Carter ended in divorce and I’m unsure who left whom but their situation was dire. Constant attempts at reconciliation failed as there was such hatred it was impossible to overcome.

    There’s a rather strange relationship between Maria, Carter and BZ (bisexual movie producer, BZ -an abbreviation for benzodiazepines, sedative drugs) and his wife Helena. I was unsure what was really going on there.

    Maria’s childhood was rather unusual. Her father had been a gambler, winning a town – Silver Wells - that began with twenty-eight individuals but was soon zero. As he had gambled away his Reno house, he recalled that he owned a town and so they lived there.

    Kate, Maria’s four year old daughter is in a clinic with an imprecise disorder. Carter was responsible for her being there and Maria is trying to get her out. She plays only for Kate.

    My feelings towards Maria and BZ changed dramatically from confusion and coldness to a sudden sense of place in regard to admiration for their identical views on existence on this earth. It could be seen that they had this kind of symbiotic relationship:

    “I never expected you to fall back on style as an argument.”

    “I’m not arguing.”

    “I know that. You think I’d be here if I didn’t know that?”

    She took his hand and held it? “Why are you here?”

    “Because you and I, we know something. Because we’ve been out there where nothing is. Because I wanted – you know why.”

    This novel is very symbolic with references to rattle snacks and also in the biblical sense; dreams, music and speed.

    The prose throughout the novel is not only riveting reading but so stark in its intensity that it disturbed me no end. Nevertheless this has certainly put me on track to read more of Didion’s works, both fiction and non-fiction. She has such a style about her, which can indeed flow from one extreme to the other but with so much depth.


  8. says:

    Gambling, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, insanity, depression, snakes, suicide. These are all elements of Play It As It Lays, and much, much more. This is stark, wide-eyed, slap in the face prose that grabs the reader and holds you from beginning to end. It's not a pleasant read, no way. Watching Maria Wyeth's life unfold is like watching the proverbial train wreck that you can't look away from. Set in the 1960's, it's about Hollywood and the movie industry; it's about Las Vegas and gambling; but mostly it's about the life of a not so famous actress who is lost in the darkest corners of these places, and in the darkest corners of life. Joan Didion is at her best here, the writing is superb and it's definitely worthy of being called a modern classic. 4.5 stars.


  9. says:

    Recently my five y/o daughter caught the first minute of the "Thriller" video. I say the first minute because upon seeing Michael look up at the camera with yellow eyes and fangs she threw her hands up, screamed at the top of her lungs, ran from the room, into her room, ran back into the room (still screaming), out of the room, back in and buried her head into the safety of my comforting lap (still screaming).

    Now I realize this is most people's reaction to seeing Micheal's post '90s decomposing flesh face but for the little princess it was a little traumatizing. Since the "day o' horror" I have had to create a new "pretty" story every night "to get THAT face" out of her head. I've created my own little fantasy stories, catered to the princess, filled with violet unicorns, fairy wings, rainbows and on one interesting night a humpback whale, mermaid and her own underwater kingdom.

    These tales of bubble-gum and rainbows brought me to this book. Sometimes when life is filled with demonic faces that haunt your night you need the pretty stories to even it out. OR in adult-land when life is filled with beige and blah you need this book.

    It was achingly empty and dark. The depravity of the characters brought out feelings and emotions within me that I needed to feel. It was rich with the feelings that make you feel alive just by your own juxtaposition to the toxic characters. Reading this was akin to reading an Adrienne Rich poem. I really liked it.

    "I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing."


  10. says:

    "Just so. I am what I am. To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point."

    This is a cruel book populated by cruel characters whose hearts, for the most part, stay cold and brutish even in the desert's blistering heat. I have enjoyed Didion’s essays, so I was expecting some of the themes, but I had not prepared myself for something so delirious and fragmented. I should admit that I was not always sure I knew what was going on. It is nasty and brutish, and I loved it.

    The story plays out in the form of 84 snapshots, most of which are no more than a few pages long. A few are written in the first person, but most follow the tragic protagonist, Maria, in the third person, as she spins from trouble to trouble. The snapshots jump around in time, and we rarely get a clear sense of chronology. Maria spends a lot of time aimlessly driving around and the reader is likewise carted chaotically from location to location, from LA to Las Vegas to the Mojave Desert, from a psychiatric hospital to swanky bars and run-down motel rooms. A core set of characters slip in and out of Maria’s life and they remain slippery: it takes time to figure out who each of them are. We get glimpses of their own lives, but we only really see them as they exist in relation to the increasingly solipsistic Maria - mostly cajoling, commanding, bullying her.

    Didion’s prose is stunning. So much remains so well unsaid. Didion can pack so much into a single short sentence:

    “‘I love you,’ she whispered, but it was more a plea than a declaration and in any case he made no response.”

    The fragmentation of the narrative allows us to inhabit Maria’s chaos and isolation. The sparsity of details we get regarding the people in her life - mostly via snatches of dialogue - make us feel as isolated as she is. While her destructive behaviour may frustrate us at times, it is easy to feel compassion when we see what she is up against.

    This book was written before Roe v. Wade. That made much of what happens a big eye opener for me and I am sure that will stay with me always.


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