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


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.

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!

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.


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.


I tried listening to this as an audiobook but quickly got lost. Luckily I already had an old paperback lying around. I recommend that you read this in a single sitting. It should take no more than two and a half hours. The chapters, and even the segments within the longer chapters, are so fragmentary that the only way to enjoy the book is as a whole rather than pieces. I've read that this is a book about a woman losing her mind but I don't believe that. The people in her life think that she is cracking up because her behavior (particularly the endless freeway driving) is alternately mysterious or erratic. I believe that she has been worn down by her life and the people surrounding her, but I do not believe she is racing toward a nervous breakdown by any stretch. I see her long drives as her attempt to keep her mind together, even if the drives help keep her mind blank, save for passing Taco Bells. She has lost her strength but I do not believe she ever loses her will to survive. She's hitting rock bottom -- indeed, she knows what 'nothing' feels like. But she also sees everything. She sees through the people in her life despite the smoke and mirrors and empty chatter they attempt to shield themselves with. Didion also captures, as she did in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", the breakdown of normal relations that happened in the late 60s. In the case of this novel, it is the treatment of women. As a society, women were ostensibly gaining power and importance outside the home. However, for a time, the loosened morality also left them open to additional physical and emotional abuses in the name of something new or rebellious. This is a very accurate and timeless portrait of a certain culture in Los Angeles. The drugs are different and there's a little more traffic, but the relationships are the same. And as an Angeleno, I can completely picture the Los Angeles Didion describes. Yeah, I've found myself parked on Romaine having a little meltdown too. No, the drive-thru at Sunset and La Brea is gone. And we all know exactly where one must veer diagonally across four lanes to merge onto the Harbor Freeway, which remarkably has not changed in the 43 years since publication.

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.

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

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.


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.


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.

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.


i think i would actually give this 3.5 stars. it's close to 4... but... never having read any of didion's fiction i was immensely curious as to what i would find. her stylistic approach to fiction is very similar to the non-fiction i've read of hers. sentences and thoughts come at you in short, precise, loaded, and planned prose. words are not minced. i got a clear sense that every adjective and every word carried weight.this is not a happy book. and i couldn't really sympathize with any of the characters. no one is REALLY likeable - it's all kind of hollywood in the 60's/70's sleazy. everyone is doped up or a drinker, self-centered, doing whatever it takes to self-satisfy, and overly concerned with their careers. but in the end that's why i was certainly feels period. a snippet in time. i think people are still as messed up, and bored, and self-involved, but it feels different in the here and now. and that's also what's fascinating about the book. the strange mental institutions and pill popping, the swinging in the marriages, the fancy back-ally abortion - none of which could occur in quite in the same way now [at least the drugs have changed].anyway - there was one passage that really struck me:ch. 65:By the end of a 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 the sense that if she could get that in her mind and hold it for even one micro-second she would have what she had come to get.filling the void. seems like a continual pursuit. there are no answers here in play it as it lays, but it's an interesting ride

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...


"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.

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

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