Play It as It Lays

ISBN: 0374529949
ISBN 13: 9780374529949
By: Joan Didion David Thomson

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About 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 ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that blisters and haunts the reader. Set in a place beyond good and evil - literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul - it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

Reader's Thoughts


Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. - Joan Didion, Play It As It LaysJoan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is the quintessential novel of Southern California, Los Angeles specifically, in the late 1960s. The book’s main character is Maria Wyeth, a model-actress just past thirty, whose career has stalled. Her marriage to film director Carter Lang would also appear to be over, though neither seem able to make the final break. The couple’s only child, Kate, has been hospitalized for an unspecified mental problem, which contemporary readers will likely assume to be autism. It is understandable why Maria has become dependent on prescription drugs, though these only partly explain why she seems to sleepwalk though life, infuriatingly detached, only barely able to cope. Didion does not provide easy answers to her malaise. Whether she is suffering from depression, or has suffered some kind of breakdown, Maria seems no longer able to interact with others. Yet she struggles to meet their expectations. Oblivious, her husband, her friends, even strangers, can only chide her for her apparent idleness and boredom. She comes to live increasingly in her own head, and to need less and less from the outside world. The people in her life is likely partly to blame for Maria’s withdrawal. Maria may cling to her daughter Kate, but her uncommunicative child seems barely aware of her mother's existence. Carter is perpetually either arriving or leaving, checking in and out of their marriage like it is a hotel. The couple’s friends BZ and Helene offer a stark contrast to Maria’s unspoken, inner moral code. BZ has a rather creepy attraction to her, and his sexual interest lingers unpleasantly just beneath the surface of their interactions. Helene and Maria go through the motions of friendship, but the two women do not seem to really even like each other. And Helene is the kind of woman who cries when her hairdresser goes on vacation. Maria spends hours driving the freeways of Southern California with no apparent destination. But it is during this driving, that she snaps back to life, as she expertly weaves across lanes of traffic. With no real obligations and barely any attachments, it is hard to understand from what she feels the need to escape. Play It As It Lays tells the story of an intelligent yet deeply alienated woman, who copes with her crumbling life with numbness and detachment. Like Maria herself, the book is strange and compelling, though obviously not for every reader.


Best opening ever:What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.***Just re-read this for a lecture I'm giving in April. I have added one star for the voice and structure, and what's left off the page, is truly amazing. Loved it the second time!


When I finished reading this book the other day, I suddenly realized that I hadn't really appreciated it correctly. That I needed to reread it right away because I hadn't read it the right way and because there is a lot that you don't have enough information to make sense of the first time around.I don't understand how people can call this book cold and sterile. I just thought it was so rich and textured and heartbreaking. I feel like the little chapters are like puzzle pieces and each piece is a sort of tone poem or a meditation or an evocation and when you place the pieces together what's between the pieces is just about devastating. ***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.


I remember when I read Where I Was From a couple years ago, Didion referred a lot to her novel Play It As It Lays and I thought it sounded really bad. About a year ago I found an old edition someplace with this enormous and brain-numbingly awesome picture of Didion with her cigarette and legendarily icy, ironical stare. I really came close to buying it just because of that image on the back, but then I had a real stern confrontation with myself in the used fiction aisle about the folly and immaturity of buying a book I'd never want to read just for the author photo.Well, silly me. Yesterday I found myself the grudging owner of a deeply unappealing FSG reprint that looks like an, I don't know, J. T. Leroy book or something else totally inappropriate and awful and contemporary. No fun at all! So it's funny to be reading something I never thought I'd have any interest in, but isn't that sort of the essence of maturity? I feel like I've sort of grown into Joan Didion. She used to epitomize all these things I hated, but now I find a lot of that same stuff pretty appealing.... story of my life, right? Story of most of ours, probably.But anyway, yeah, this book. Well, I didn't have such a strong reaction to it, but like everything of Ms. Didion's I've read, I found it very well-written. I'd recommend this to anyone who liked Less Than Zero, who thinks they might enjoy essentially the same nihilistic LA-story more if it were set in the sixties, about a grown woman instead of a teenage boy, written by a better writer. I'd also recommend this to people who loved Valley of the Dolls yet who cling to certain literary pretensions. Since both these definitely describe me, it's not surprising that I did enjoy this book. I mean, it's a beautiful-woman-crashing-to-pieces yarn, and everyone loves those, don't they? No? Well, then don't waste your time. Read some of her essays instead.

Jason Coleman

Kind of fascinating to see that concise, tip-of-the-iceberg prose of Didion's essays applied to a piece of fiction. The heroine, who seems to share the author's withering intelligence, can't enjoy the decadence that her friends have resigned themselves to, but she isn't much good with the wholesome life either, so she carves out a mostly solitary existence made up of sleeping next to her swimming pool, compulsively hitting the highway (she puts less thought into zipping over to Vegas [distance: 250 miles] than I do into going up a single flight of stairs), and, in the novel's best-known sequence, passing through several levels of shady security for an abortion in Encino. She gets out of the house, she even works some, but little of it seems to register with her: people come and go like spirits. The subject is dreary, and I can see how Didion's refusal to give us more than passing glances at key events and characters could frustrate some readers, but she is writing it the only way she can; you just have to trust her.Underneath the elliptically relayed events and ghostly (though spot-on) dialogue, there is a clinical layer informing the story. Didion, who went through a breakdown herself (and famously reprinted one of her diagnoses in The White Album), is depicting an unstable ego: the heroine's personality is deteriorating before our eyes. This isn't ennui, the Hotel California, or Rebel without a Cause-styled alienation; this is full-blown mental illness. Some people who get impatient with the book--or complain that they couldn't "like" the character--probably haven't caught onto this.


I picked this book up from the library because of a tag line comparing Didion to Nathanael West. I think the similarity comes from both of their depictions of Hollywood in unfavorable light, however I think West focuses more on the absurdity and dark humor, while Didion's novel tends to point out the emptiness and depravity.This is the Hollywood of the early 1970s. Driving around freeways, cocktail parties, drugs, sham marriages, one night stands with nobody actors. Maria is a very unhappy woman. Sometimes she can't seem to find any reason to care about anything; other times she's crying for no direct reason, or just observing the bullshit around her. She's a former actress, apparently getting too old, but it's not like she wanted to be an actress much in the first place. She's not an easy character to like, but I think easy to imagine her state of mind and her environment. A very stark book.


"Play It As It Lays" is the end product of an era when Hollywood partied night after night until someone got hurt, like Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring. It's the hangover of a Hollywood party when the drugs weren't strong enough and the sex wasn't twisted enough anymore, and a jaded party girl cracks like an egg. Joan Didion put it all on paper, warts and Hollywood crazies and all. I can almost see the tinted aviator sunglasses, brown suede jackets, and feathered hair.


Wow.My love for Didion grows and grows. I had closed my book store but didn't want to go home. My home isn't comfortable; recently my bedroom ceiling collapsed and was half-ass fixed, a few days ago my kitchen ceiling collapsed, and all despite warning my lazy super that the pipes in my ceiling were damaged and if not fixed would result in a collapsed and destroyed kitchen ceiling. Anyway, I was hanging out with my friend Red and we had closed the store. I picked up this book and started reading it aloud. Forty pages later, my voice was raspy and tired, but I couldn't stop, even if I couldn't continue reading aloud. I blazed through the book, loving Didion's characterizations, use of punctuation, and experimental shifting of time and place. In the beginning, Didion ends questions with periods, which creates a character whose voice is flat and affect-less; the character, a former model named Maria (pronounced Mah-rEYE-ah) is completely opaque, utterly ill at ease with the world and perhaps in an insane asylum. She perhaps was involved in someone's death, and is mixed up in endless suffering, but all surrounded by Hollywood players and beautiful affect-less and flat people who, unlike her, smile and laugh constantly, even if the laughs and smiles are about as sincere as a hyena's and a crocodile's (respectively).Beautiful, beautiful, ugly book. Loss; bad decisions; regret; the terror of life; and the occasional stubborn decision to go on.

Christian Engler

What would life be like if it was meaningless, if the people we associated with were plastic? not real? pretentious? What if our life was just a hopeless void with loose morals, drugs, hollow sayings and beliefs? What if we just played the empty game of life as it was laid down for us? That is the main theme in Joan Didion's classic book that takes the reader into the life of Maria Wyeth, actress, mother, daughter, divorced wife, a woman who has grown tired and desensitized to the fakeness and pain caused by the Hollywood and Las Vegas establishment.It is a life filled to the brim with movie premiers, booze, pills, suicide, casual, empty sex, abortions and nothing else. It is a world of plastic surgery and beautiful people, of Let's do lunch and venomous gossip. The sneering, caustic tone of Didion's voice would want to make anybody who lived the lives of the novel's characters put a gun to their head and end it all. The language is stinging, fast-paced, lean, anti-Hollywood. Pure Didion!

Vheel Laborera

"What does apply, they ask later, as if the word "nothing" were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune."It's a profound novel about the jaded life told in the perspective of a thirty-year-old divorcee Maria Wyeth (pronounced Mar-eye-ah). I do like the realness and attribution of the characters done here in the novel. Their weakness and aggravation towards abuse (Maria does all of that being in Hollywood and mental rehabilitation) and the loneliness the main character encountered (pointing out the emptiness) until the end. If you've been down to the rabbit hole then this book is for you."I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing."“Without suffering, there'd be no compassion.”- Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember


About once a decade I pull out Joan Didion's groundbreaking 1970 novel and find something new in it again. After the more traditional (but highly recommended) debut novel Run River, this is written in the cool, sparer style that Didion fans would come to know so well. It's about Maria Wyeth, a troubled actress and wife of a Hollywood director, who can't seem to find her bearings, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. She takes to driving the freeways, meditating on her family's ruined past and flirting with disaster among seedy motion picture types. Clearly, the book, like her lead essay in The White Album, is a metaphor for the breakdown of the '60s, and the ennui and disillusion that brought us the Manson Era. The only part that doesn't work is the institutionalizing of her young daughter in the book; that subplot never seems fully fleshed out and doesn't work as the sole reason for Maria's breakdown. But as a fever dream of a disturbed time, this books nails it as few have.

Abe Brennan

A novel in snippets, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays begins with three passages narrated in the first person by three of the main characters—the focus of these people’s observations is Maria, the first of the three, and the main character of the novel. The rest of the book is comprised of 84 pieces of prose narrated in the third person from Maria’s point of view. What emerges from these episodic glimpses into the hazy world of a would-be starlet, wife, and mother is a portrait of dissolution, decadence, and, mostly, despair on the part of all parties involved. None of these people are very likable, but they hold our interest, largely because of Ms. Didion’s incisive prose stylings, but also because she manages to capture that peculiar blend of ennui and misery that beset those in the modern world with a penchant for thinking. This is a masterful character study, not a caricature. Nevertheless, by the end of it, we’re left wondering if Hollywood is English for Babylon and feeling like BZ had the right idea.

Nakisa Rowshan

It has been a long time since I have read and been moved by a book to the extent which this one reached me. The prose is at times simplistic and others fragmentary; yet the two stylistic frames offer a unique and abstract symmetry. I was touched on a personal and empathetic level which I did not expect, especially because Maria as a character, in full, (and what her life shared us and spoke of) was not one I could mirror in any immediate or complete manner. I definitely recommend this text to anyone, and to all.


Well-crafted but frustrating and numbing. Not a book to read during spring, more like the end of autumn sort of read. I wanted to smash things at the end, but I felt too enervated.


This book is simply brilliant. The fatalism of it's heroine, Maria Wyeth, is absolutely heart-wrenching as she slowly grows more and more tired of life. Didion is a surgeon, each sentence like a scalpel cutting away a cancerous tumor. No one can match her for brutal honesty. While it's a very quick read at just over 200 pages, it deals a swift but heavy blow.

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