Play It as It Lays

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

Check Price Now


1001 Import Classics Currently Reading Favorites Fiction Literature Novels Time 100 To Buy To Read

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


Maria is beautiful, thin, rich. Her parents dealt her with aces. She had her mother's beauty, her father's optimism. What she lacked was the game. Maria's world is shattered when her daughter is put into an institution for being mentally retarded. This is never spelled out, it is merely alluded to. Her family life is not as she wishes it to be. They are not a cosy couple, living an everyday life with their child. Her husband is away mostly, making films, while she is the bored, purposeless Beverly Hills faded trophy wife.She spirals downwards, all the people in her life, everything that happens to her, just pushes her deeper into mire.What makes the book stand out is the masterly writing of Joan Didion. Her pithy prose leads you into the mind of Maria, what makes her tick, or rather, what makes her fall apart. Maria recounts her story, or parts of it, from an Institution. Her account is disjointed, moving back and forth. Her disjointed thoughts, lacking any clear flow, betray the state of her mind. It is as if the writer is not there at all, and the novel is flowing straight out of the head of Maria Lang.Beautiful fading Maria remains strangely untouched by the decadence that surrounds her, even though she is a part of it. Her long highway drives to forget her troubles are going to stay in my mind for a long time.

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.

Laurel Beth

A few months ago I had a dream. I was a participant in a Know Your Boo-cum-Hunger Games style game show, in which I had to answer questions about my boyfriend to save him from death. The question came, "What's your boo's favorite color?" and I had no idea what the answer was. Like most dreams, I awoke before the definitive event, only to know that I had failed.My own responses to the questions of favorites are arbitrary - they are learned responses to questions no one ever asks. The stratification of loving the particular has aged out of us. There are no appropriate responses to preference that aren't prefaced with "Well, right now, it's ..." or "I could never pick one, but ..." Yet I maintain the data, whether or not it's applicable. But is Maria right here, does nothing really apply?In deference to the narrative I present this:My favorite band is The Ramones.My favorite movie is Bachelorette.My favorite color is gold.My favorite leisure activity is driving a byway.My favorite food is insalata caprese.My favorite book is Play it as it Lays.Although, upon rereading it, there's little in Play it as it Lays for me anymore that I haven't found better somewhere else. The contrast of femininity abutting the feral city, that's better in Good Morning, Midnight. The rancorous heat shimmers more in A Book of Common Prayer. The inventory of what won't be done again is wittier and more immediate in One DOA One on the Way. The capricious drive won't ever be better than in Why Did I Ever.So what then? My favorite band is really The Roots. My favorite movie used to be Sabrina. I wear a lot of black but it's not my favorite, it's my preference. I love the tomatoes and the mozzarella di bufala in caprese but I always eat around the basil.Maybe I relate closer to what came before and after. My favorite book is actually Why Did I Ever, because it's exacting and spare, whereas Play it as it Lays gives into hazy allusion. Both are full of short chapters and women and piloting the car almost but not quite far enough. Things aren't unchanged as much as they are displaced; a firmament allowed enough room to move with the tides, the seismic, the little earthquakes.


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.


Want to read some beautiful prose? Didion writes like Miles Davis played. That spare West Coast sound with no vibrato. Just the pure, existential, weight of the moment, soul-searing feel. Maria (ma-RYE-ah) Wyeth -- one of the most tortured characters you'll ever read about -- has an internal clock that ticks to the beat of the freeways in LA, which she purposely drives for relaxation, navigating like a sailor.Listen to this: She tried to remember how it had been to drag Fremont Street in Vegas with Earl Lee Atkins when she was sixteen years old, how it had been to go out on the desert between Vegas and Boulder and drink beer from half-quart cans and feel her sunburn when he touched her and smell the chlorine from her own hair and the Lava soap from his and the sweet sharp smell of starched cotton soaked with sweat. "How High The Moon," the radio would play, Les Paul and Mary Ford. Reading those two sentences is like drinking a mouthful of a fine wine. Yes, this is one of my favorite books.

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.

Simon A. Smith

I DID like this book quite a bit. I was highly impressed with Didion's style, her courage and her unflinching, uncensored look at drugs, lust, hollywood and irredeemability... It's a real mind bender. Makes you want to look away and come closer all at the same time. The ending left a lot to imgination, which I wasn't sure if I found refreshing or disappointing... ultimately, a solid 4 - 4 1/2 stars. This book certainly is not for everyone, but it was so endlessly interesting and surprising. Without giving too much away, the actual abortion scene was shocking, riveting and a huge gut punch. It's achingly vivid and wrenching, with the kind of shocking, quirky, unexpected, minute details that make it seem so real. Quite a gut punch. But it's done so damn well and it hurts so good...


Hmm. Star ratings are tricky here. I'm giving it a 3 for my own enjoyment of it, but it probably deserves a four for being so well written.Although I didn't exactly relish this book, I did read it in one sitting. I love Joan Didion's essays, so I was excited to try a novel. But this is not really my kind of book. If you like Bret Easton Ellis novels, you'll probably love this. If you like reading about rich people wandering aimlessly through their lives and shuddering through the death throes of their emotional lives, this is the book for you. It's one of those stories where a suicide attempt or other such self-destructive act serves to remind you that the character does have some kind of feelings. I'm not saying that to be snide - I think there is something impressive about novels like that, and they are often a really skillful portrayal of affect, or rather, its lack. You might argue that they are an investigation into what it means to be human, that takes a kind of extreme as its entry point, and I will totally grant you that there is something really interesting going on there. It's just that I just don't especially enjoy reading it, these days. Didion is, however, an incredible writer. Like I said already, the book has momentum. The pacing is especially clever, with chapters ranging in length from a few pages to a paragraph. The language is unadorned but powerful. I was completely absorbed.I guess the take away message here is, if you're going to read one 'emotionally-vacant-character-making-a-mess-of-herself' novel this year, it might as well be this one.


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.


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.


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.


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.


"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.

April Hayes

You ever notice how almost every review you’ll read of a Joan Didion book calls her “intelligent,” or says that she writes “intelligent prose”? That must get to you. No wonder all of her heroines take pills.It’s true, though, she does have an awful big brain for such a little lady. And yeah, L.A. is scary, and there isn’t really anyone who conveys that better than her…except maybe Philip K. Dick, who isn’t literally writing about L.A., but come on.But, I don’t know, as good as the technique is here, as cool and interesting and cutting as the writing is, I still found it a little whiny and trivial and frustrating at times. But that’s probably my fault - I have no doubt that’s because I’m not able to grasp the impact it must have had when it first came out, how shocking it must have been, how our mothers and their friends probably passed this around and the sense of deliverance they probably experienced. I’m not saying it’s a case of “how far we’ve come,” as probably the fact that we’re now able to talk about these things more upfront-ly and with less direct punishment doesn’t translate to the majority of women in this country, but maybe that’s why it’s largely unpleasant to read – the arguments she’s making are old arguments, we still don’t have any solutions, so rehashing them is just depressing and futile.Whereas "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" was like an epic, devastating requiem to California and the ‘60s, "Play it as it Lays" is more like a really good Elliot Smith song. You recognize it’s good, the first three times you listen to it you feel like it’s maybe the cleverest, saddest shit out there, but then you kind of stop listening to it; the place of pain and toxicity from which it emerged, and the fact that it’s a little too close to home is too much to have in your life and thoughts on a regular basis.

Caitlin Constantine

This is one of my top 10 favorite books, an airless story about a woman immersed in the morally arid culture of Hollywood, and her eventual mental breakdown as she fails to reconcile the life she wants with the one she has. It's depressing but beautiful.The plot isn't what makes this book so special to me, even though it belongs to one of my favorite subgenres: "Woman Loses Her Shit After Bumping Up Against the Constraints of Social Mores One Too Many Times." (See also: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" and Kate Chopin's "The Awakening.") What makes me love this story so much is the way it's written. For me, the marker of a good book is not the novelty of the plot or the characters, but the quality of the writing, and I think the writing in "Play It As It Lays" is staggering. Anyone who is familiar with Didion's nonfiction writing (like me, big geek that I am) knows she is the queen of the oblique run-on sentence. She seems physically incapable of approaching her point directly, instead preferring to weave her rhetoric around you like a spider web, then snatching you so tightly with her conclusion that you can't possibly imagine any other way of looking at the issue.She abandons that style of writing in this novel, instead using tight prose that would almost be considered flat and unemotional were it not for the horrors she was describing. And in fact, I think the flat and unemotional tone fits, because she is showing us the life of a woman who is depressed, and most people who are depressed say that it's not so much about feeling sad as it is about feeling nothing at all. And then there are specific passages that just make me so happy to recount in my head. There's one where she talks about how gay men like to hang out with the protagonist, Maria, because she knows the difference between the right bracelet and an amusing facsimile of the right bracelet. There's another one about Maria's shopping trip to Ralph's, where she loads up her cart with food that will go uneaten for fear of looking like a certain kind of woman who is obviously eating alone. It's little tiny details like those that combine to draw a picture of a woman trapped in a world of surfaces and superficiality who wants desperately to get out but cannot seem to make herself do it.There's so much more I could say about this book but I will abstain. I will say that I am inspired to read it again soon after writing this much about it. I love it that much.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *