Book Reviews

Guest Post: T.K. Mills Review: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Back at it again with a post by T.K. Mills. I hope you enjoy, I need to start reading these recs!

Just so. I am what I am. To look for reasons is beside the point.

Do you believe in evil, or rather, evil people? If so, what is it that makes them evil? Is it a matter of unpardonable crimes committed, or it is simply an intractable matter of their being? I ask, but Maria never asks. That is not who she is.

Who she is, however, is the central force within Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. I chose the above quote, because I believe in encapsulates everything essential in the novel; the eloquent and concise prose, the cool acceptance of being that defines both author and protagonist, and an amorality bordering on nihilism which permeate through-out. I chose the above quote, but there were several contenders.

What I respect most about the Didion is her dedication to writing, as meditatively crafted as any work produced by Hemingway. Play it as it Lays was Didion’s first novel. The structure is loose and the prose is tight. It is written in 84 chapters, few of which extend beyond 3 pages, and the total count being brought to 213. The narrative shifts between first and third person. Play it as it Lays first three chapters play as a prologue to the story, portraying perhaps the best introductory characterization I have ever read.

Maria, pronounced ‘mar-eye-ah,’ as she herself explains, is in an institution. To recover. Carter replays some memories of Maria, in his head as though it were a camera, trying to find a pattern to explain his wife. None comes. Helene goes to visit her, more for Carter’s sake than Maria’s, but nonetheless she is not received. BZ is dead, something to which some believe Maria responsible.

Those are just the facts. What follows are a series of scenes, that do not develop a plot quite as much as they develop a character, Maria.

  I mean there’s something in your behavior Maria, I would almost go so far as to call it… I would almost go so far as to call it a very self-destructive personality structure.

Modern feminism seeks to achieve equality, often by condemning negative depictions of women and promoting positivity. Joan Didion does not. Rather, she depicts a woman of her own agency. An agency that happens to have consequences on those around her, often negatively.

She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled.

 Maria is an actress. Or was. Her agent is also her husband’s agent. Carter is a director, and directed Maria’s first film. It is titled ‘Maria’ and is about the life of Maria. Whether this film fully captured the amoral lifestyle of it’s titular character, one cannot say, but it won Carter praise and cinematic accolades. Maria does not enjoy watching ‘Maria.’ Maria and Carter have a daughter, Kate. Kate is sick, but Maria loves her.

I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day, but I am burdened by the particular.

Play it as it Lays is principally about Maria, although it is as much about her environment. Much like Didion, Maria grew up in a desert; Silver Wells, a small town near Reno. From her youth, Maria learned to differentiate snakes; a coral snake looks like a king snake, but a coral snake carries two glands of neurotoxin. Why, what is the reason? I’ve shared Maria’s thoughts on reasons. The desert is an apt metaphor for the novel. Barren on the surface, but one must follow closely to see beyond that.

She did not decide to stay in Vegas; she only failed to leave.

Gambling comes into play, a frequent motif. Maria’s father and his business partner, Benny, taught her life’s lessons in these sort of idioms. When you’re down, the next hand you’re sure to be up; don’t let them bluff you, you’re holding all the aces. Well, sometimes you get played a bad hand. Maria learned at some point, that nothing applies. Perhaps it was when she learned her mother died in a car crash. As it was, they didn’t find the body for some days, and her mother’s body was eaten by coyotes. As it happens, Maria takes issue with ‘as it was.’

I do not think of things in terms of good and evil. I would not qualify myself as a nihilist, though like Maria, I try to take the long-view of things, and realize really nothing applies. At the moment of this writing, Joan Didion is alive at 82. In recent years, both her husband and daughter have passed. A considerable amount of time has passed since Play it as it Lays was first published but what shapes its message is also what shapes the thought of Joan Didion. What makes Maria feel real, makes her such a compelling character, is that one cannot help but make the connection between Maria and Joan. The best art is created when the creator pours themselves into their work as a reflection of their self. Maria considers suicide. Maria considers whether her mother’s death was actually suicide. Suicide is a recurrent theme. Why live when the world can be so ugly? Why not, Maria would reply. Readers may be turned away by dark content, but I feel drawn to novels that consider the purpose of life. But it is what it is, and I am as I am. As my own life continues with uncertainty, I find comfort in taking the long view.

I know what nothing means, and I keep on playing.

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