As the universe tends to do, it tips and the right book for the right occasion falls on my lap. Just as I begin to embark on a mildly curious philosophical journey of Buddhist contemplation, reading a little Chopra here and a some Williamson there, I decided to read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, probably one of the most apathetic, fatalistic novels I’ve read in several years. In the introduction, David Thomson articulates the unusual magnetism of Didion’s lost characters, especially Maria, whose deadened appraisal of the world can be somewhat off-putting:
Over the years I have recommended Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays to people, and I have learned to be cautious, or terse. It’s a little like saying there is an old silver mine at the end of that box canyon, still alive – it’s not too far – but there are rattlesnakes living in the mine. And sometimes people come back with a hurt look: the book is very… sordid, isn’t it? And tough – by which they mean not a tough read, but hard-hearted. Sometimes people flat out say the story is bleak and unpleasant, and in the end they couldn’t like Maria enough.
Indeed the story is undeniably bleak and unpleasant; I would go so far as to say heartless. But, I don’t mean that Didion herself is heartless, nor do I intend to label the characters evil. Instead, I’d describe their apathy and bleak je ne sais quoi like this: the characters are stuck, trapped in that indefinable space between good and non-good, if that makes any sense.
To illustrate, let’s look at the first sentence of the novel, our introduction to Maria Wyeth’s internal monologue:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
Lack of curiosity, lack of hunger, lack of desire. The word “nothing” is used to describe nearly every emotion and experience. While this may sound melodramatic, Didion’s talent for sparse, blunt, almost uncomfortably honest prose, does not overwhelm the reader with great waves of description. Instead, words are kept simple and, in many cases, literal. Didion says what she means and means what she says, a rarity. Here’s another glimpse into Maria’s aimless thoughts:
I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Buddhism. Well, at first glance, nothing, but then Maria expresses her disdain for what is, what is now, what her life means now, and the thought of what used to be breaks what little of her heart remains. So, when her godfather Benny visits, talking of years gone by, Maria is almost physically ill, and completely emotionally disengages from the conversation, eventually wandering away never to return.
The title Play It As It Lays refers to the cards of life we are dealt, and that we must play them as they are. Maria, on the other hand, can’t seem to wrap her head around the reality of her cards. She is constantly re-inventing the meaning of her now, instead of experiencing the brutality of the moment:
Maria turned off the ignition and looked at the man in the white duck pants with an intense and grateful interest. In the past few minutes he had significantly altered her perception of reality: she saw now that she was not a woman on her way to have an abortion. She was a woman parking a Corvette outside a tract house while a man in white pants talked about buying a Camaro. (79)
After some investigation, I realized that a film adaptation of this novel was made in 1972. I can’t imagine how the story, which can be exceptionally quiet and introspective, translates to the screen, but I was impressed with the 2 minute clip I found on YouTube. Apparently, this film generated a great deal of acclaim.
Now, I didn’t actually articulate my opinion of this novel. Did I enjoy it? Enjoy wouldn’t be the word, no, but I’m glad to have read it at this point in my life. Did I like the novel? Again, the word doesn’t seem to fit the context. It’s hard to really like anything about this book, in the traditional sense. Play It As It Lays is a psychological portrait of a woman who has abandoned her heart. She has stopped caring for it, stopped feeding it… just stopped. It’s like she’s been idling in traffic the entire 214 pages.
At the end, however, though Maria may be the same lost soul from beginning to end, you, the reader, are not. You have learned from her idling, and her forever I-don’t-know, how to see yourself just a little bit clearer, how to read between the lines of then and now, how to feel more, and that’s always a good thing.
- Have you read anything by Joan Didion, and did she employ similar bleak prose and characters?
- Have you seen Play It As It Lays? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Do you agree that this novel is a “tough” (as in, hard-hearted) read?