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

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


"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.

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 just re-read this book and it still bowls me over every time. I've been wanting to revisit it since the premiere of the AMC show "Mad Men", as there are many times in that show that I felt this book must have been an influence on the writers, as it tackles about the same time period with that same critical eye. What's so amazing to me is that Ms. Didion did it so soon after the 60's ended, yet was still able to create a character like Maria, an anti-heroine to rival Don Draper, whose selfishness is as infuriating as it is enthralling. This book is often criticized as being about "nothing" (another TV touchstone come to mind?), but it's in this contemplation of nothing that I find the book's depth. In a culture that constantly asks us to look outside ourselves for validation, how soon is it before what's inside truly feels empty? And from that place, how do we find peace? It can be argued that Maria does find it in the end, though her counterpart comes to it more tragically. Also, in a year when women's rights have been so hotly debated, this book is a great reminder of the sexual politics that brought about women's liberation and the complicated seeds from which it grew. It's examination of abortion alone is worth another reading, as well as what it says about the modern woman and motherhood. If you came to Didion's work later, with the popularity of her memoirs "Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights", this is a good one to seek out and discover the early talent blooming.


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.

Mike Ingram

Upgraded from four to five stars on second read. While there are flaws here, what work of art doesn't have flaws? Flaws make something interesting. A disjointed point of view, in this case, the kind of thing that would get criticized in a workshop, but which proves the old writing adage: You can do anything you want, as long as you're good enough to pull it off.I've seen criticism of this book's supposed datedness, or a general feeling that the old "jaded, nihilistic characters moping around" genre has been done to death. While I get that, I don't think it's particularly fair, as this book actually has something to say about jadedness, and alienation, so that the jadedness and alienation of its protagonist don't feel (to me, at least) like a pose, the kind of attitude embraced all too often by well-off undergrads who smoke clove cigarettes and think saying "life is meaningless" in world-weary voices makes them interesting. Unlike those kids, Maria (again, to me) is actually interesting, and has actually earned her attitude.Plus the writing is just great. Spare, suggestive. I found myself rereading chapters just because I wanted to re-experience them, or experience them more fully. Lots of subtle suggestive stuff worthy of a second, or third, read. I'm sure I'll go back to this one again at some point, just for kicks. This time I went back to it specifically for a podcast I was recording with a friend/colleague, where we talk about books and writing and our own sometimes-embarrassing lives (in this case, my being one of those annoying undergrads, basically). You can listen to that here, if you're so inclined:Book Fight Episode 3: Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Oof. The Sheltering Sky meets The Great Gatsby as rewritten by Raymond Carver? Only... even more depressing and bleak than that sounds? Hence the "oof," you know.Normally I just want books about poor, poor rich people to spare me, but this one worked by never losing sight of the fact that these hedonists were constantly digging their own holes.

The 23rd Page

** spoiler alert ** Is she a "has been" or a "never was?"If Bukowski had been a spoiled, rich woman, he would have been Maria Wyeth, the main character in Joan Didion’s second novel, Play It As It Lays. On the 23rd page, Maria is trying to get back into acting but is forced to admit her own insignificance in the industry, especially in relation to her husband, a director on the rise. Didion writes with a knowing voice, as if to assure us that Hollywood and Vegas in the ’60s really were as sleazy we imagine they must have been. In the rest of the book, Maria confronts many personal trials such as divorce, abortion, and drug use, but the 23rd page is all about rejection. (Oh, I’m sorry, was that a spoiler? Well the Introduction spoiled it for me, so feel my pain.)"[T:]he look he gave Maria was dutifully charged with sexual appreciation, meant not for Maria herself but for Carter Lang’s wife."Forget acting — she can’t even be a sex object in her own right. A sad day in the sad life of a sad person. This page is a great read for when you’re in the mood to feel sorry for someone who doesn’t deserve it.

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