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Play It As It Lays

posted on 06 Nov 2017

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

I was recently driving somewhere and listening to the first album by Lloyd Cole and Commotions which is entitled Rattlesnakes. Cole is on record as saying that the title track was inspired by the fact that he’d just been reading Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays when he was writing portions of the album and this started a little scratching inside my head which resulted in me taking down the book from my shelves for the first time in over 30 years.

Published in the UK in 1971, Didion’s portrait of Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah she tells us early on) Wyeth, a thirty-something starlet on the fringes of the Hollywood world has to be seen in its historical context – the excess of West Coast USA, the emerging second-wave feminist revolution and the beginnings of celebrity culture.

Maria’s story can best be understood in that context. As the book opens we discover that Maria has mental health problems that have resulted in her institutionalisation and that the one fierce and immovable love in her life is her learning-disabled daughter, Kate. She’s divorced from a movie-maker who continues to exert his influence over her and she’s had a limited career as a model and movie actress but is now clearly being treated as last year’s model.

We also discover that she is pregnant by one of her lovers and she is rushed into an illicit abortion by her ex-husband – something that continues to haunt her throughout the book. But what really comes across strongly is the way she is used and abused by men looking to take whatever advantage they can of her – there is no respect evident in any of her relationships and she is so disempowered that she virtually colludes in her own exploitation.

We also get to see that her fragility and vulnerability has its roots back in her childhood – her mother died in a car crash and subsequently her dead body was disfigured by coyotes. Her father was a gambler and failure:

We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him……..I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that.

The population of Silver Wells is zero.

But it was also her father who told her that life is a crap game and you have to ‘play it as it lays’ and that there are rattlesnakes under every rock. The latter being a truth Maria would discover for herself.

This is a bleak and desperate story told in 84 tight and beautifully crafted short chapters mostly through the lens of Maria and her reflections on life. Although she ultimately rejects suicide, there’s no disguising the essential nihilism of her final conclusion:

One thing I’ll say 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.

 

This is never going to be a book that you’ll say you ‘enjoyed’ but it is, I think, an example of what the best novel writing can do – it can stay relevant, instructive and emotionally significant in a way that transcends the time and place in which it was made but while also staying absolutely attached to the values of the author who created it.

 

Terry Potter

November 2017