Books Magazine

Book #85: Play It As It Lays

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

Have you ever known where a novel’s plot was going before it got there?

Sadly, I had a pretty good feeling how Play It As It Lays was headed just a few dozen pages into the book. It’s not that Joan Didion’s novel was predictable—I actually didn’t call the ending exactly—but it’s hard to read the book without seeing all the plot signs pointing in one direction.

The story focuses on Maria Wyeth, a downtrodden out-of-work actress who is trying to find her purpose in life following a divorce and an abortion she felt forced into by her ex-husband.

If Maria starts the novel as slightly depressed, she ends the novel pretty much as a basketcase. She resorts to heavy drinking, casual sex encounters, driving random freeways, and gets involved in a weird love triangle.

So, as you can see, this is yet another uplifting novel featured on the Time list. Joan Didion’s writing—which I had never experienced before this novel—is exceptional.

The tone of the novel reminds me a little of The Great Gatsby. It’s short and filled with symbols and motifs. When I hear about symbolism in literature, though, I always think about this. How much was intended and how much has academia read into her work?

Didion has said she was greatly inspired by Hemingway, and that shows in her writing. It’s dark and stark. The visuals she creates with her writing are incredible.

“After that he would leave for a while, breaking things as he went, slamming doors to kick them open, picking up decanters to hurl at mirrors, detouring by way of chairs to smash them against the floor. Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself.”

I see a lot of Fitzgerald in that passage, don’t you? So good.

In all, Play It As It Lays is a good, not great, novel that gives an opportunity to let Joan Didion’s writing style shine.

Though it took me forever to read, the novel is actually short and you could read it in a couple of days. If you’re looking for a depressing, downer of a novel, then Play It As It Lays is a perfect choice.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

The Meaning: The title comes from this passage:

When I was ten years old my father taught me to assess quite rapidly the shifting probabilities on a craps layout: I could trace a layout in my sleep, the field here and the pass line all around, even money on Big Six or Eight, five-for-one on Any Seven. Always when I play back my father’s voice it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.

Highlights: The novel is extremely readable and easy to digest, thanks to short chapters and Didion’s engaging style.

Lowlights: Dark, depressing novel. I’m tired of them.

Memorable Line: “I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”

Final Thoughts: Good novel. Quick read. Didion’s writing is crisp, clean, and stark. Worth a weekend read if you want to give her a try.

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