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Play It As It Lays: A Novel ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (23)

Modernity has promised Man many things, the most important of which is that with God dead, we are free to jettison the archaic Judeo-Christian morality which has held us in thrall lo these many years and can now do, essentially, whatever we wish.  This basic promise was finally and fully embraced during the 1960's with Women's Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, the rise of the Drug Culture, the rejection of the nuclear family, etc., etc., etc..  All of these different waves of social experimentation had a one thing in common, each was premised on the idea that individual freedom is the paramount value, more important than any responsibility owed to our fellow men.  Together they elevate the self above neighborhood, community, society and family.  They place the individual at the of his own universe, whole and sufficient unto himself, beholden to no one, dependent on no one.

Joan Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays, though written in 1970, already recognized the horrific consequences of this monstrous ideology of selfishness.  The main character in the novel, Maria Wyeth, is a thirty-one year old model turned actress.  Her days are filled with casual sex, drugs, alcohol, aimless wanderings, and meaningless conversations with people she doesn't much like.  Her marriage is falling apart.  Her four year old daughter has been institutionalized, because of some form of chemical imbalance.  Pregnant again, she gets an abortion, an illegal one performed in a safe house in Encino.  This accelerates her slide into an emotional instability so severe that she ends up confined to a mental hospital.

Though she mentions an inchoate longing to return to her childhood several times, in her final monologues in the book she seems to have settled into complete nihilism :

    I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing.  The answer is 'nothing.'

And her behavior--the sex with friends, acquaintances and strangers, the barbiturates and alcohol, the almost complete absence of emotion with which she accepts a friend's decision to commit suicide--certainly suggests that nothing matters.  However, there is one moment in the book which betrays a hidden truth; after an assignation with a married lover, the following conversation ensues :

    'Don't cry,' he said.

    'There's no point.'

    'No point in what.'

    'No point in our doing any of those things.'

    He looked at her for a long while.  'Later,' he said then.

    'I'm sorry.'

    'It's all right.'

    On the drive back they told each other that it had been the wrong time, the wrong place, that it was
    bad because he had lied to arrange it, that it would be all right another time, idyllic later.  He
    mentioned the strain he had been under, he mentioned the preview had gone badly.  She mentioned
    that she was getting the curse.  They mentioned Kate, Carter, Felicia, the weather, Oxnard, his
    dislike of motel rooms,  her fear of subterfuge.  They mentioned everything but one thing: that she
    had left the point in a bedroom in Encino.

Significantly, this comes in a portion of the book that is not told in Maria's first person voice.  It would seem to be the author's judgment upon Maria and her cohorts.  The freedom they have bought into has brought them entirely empty and miserable lives, while leaving them incapable of understanding that certain things in life actually do mean something.   Maria's life had a point, the life that she was carrying and towards which she had a responsibility.  It was the abdication of this burden, the failure to accept responsibility for another being, which has rendered her life finally meaningless.

This is a bleak and devastating look at a culture where people have become completely atomized, heedless of anyone beyond themselves and, therefore, so soulless that there's not much to like about themselves.  In fact, none of the characters are likable and, other than that brief authorial comment, there's not much of a redeeming vision to be found.  I kind of admired the book's very savagery, but it was ultimately just so dark and hopeless that it was hard to enjoy.


Grade: (B)


Joan Didion Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Joan Didion
    -VIDEO: IN DEPTH: Joan Didion: Books, Quotes, Essays, The Year of Magical Thinking, The White Album (C-SPAN Book TV, Jul 14, 2018)
    -PODCAST: Lili Anolik on the Complicated Relationship Between Eve Babitz and Joan Didion: In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl (Otherppl with Brad Listi. March 16, 2022)
    -ESSAY: The Insidious Ethic of Conscience (Joan Didion, Autumn 1965, American Scholar)
-OBIT: Joan Didion, ‘New Journalist’ Who Explored Culture and Chaos, Dies at 87 (William Grimes, 12/23/21, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, who chronicled American decadence and hypocrisy, dies at 87 (Washington Post, Dec. 23rd, 2021)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, famed American essayist and novelist, has died (Mirna Alsharif, 12/23/21, CNN)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion has died at 87 (Emily Temple, December 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -OBIT: Writer Joan Didion, whose 'electric anxiety' inspired a generation, has died at 87 (SUSAN STAMBERG, 12/23/21, NPR)
    -OBIT: US author Joan Didion dead at 87: New York Times (AFP, December 23, 2021)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Specific Vision: In the face of the failure of narrative to make sense of life, she found meaning in the particular. (Emma Cline, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion got inside all of us: She was a woman to whom words mattered, whether writing about the Sixties gone wrong or California identity (Francesca Peacock, December 23, 2021, The Spectator)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, peerless prose stylist, dies at 87 (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 12/23/2021)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering Joan Didion’s reserved, masterful style: The power of Didion’s prose lay in what she didn’t say. (Constance Grady, Dec 23, 2021, Vox)
    -OBIT:Joan Didion, masterful novelist, memoirist and social critic, dies at 87 (Elaine Woo, 12/23/21, Los Angeles Times)
-OBIT: Joan Didion Has Died at 87 (ALESSANDRA CODINHA, December 23, 2021, Vogue)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, R.I.P. (NIC ROWAN, December 23, 2021, National Review)
    -TRIBUTE: Didion’s Prophetic Eye on America (Michinko Kakutani, Dec. 24, 2021, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion Chronicled American Disorder With Her Own Unmistakable Style: The generation-defining essayist and novelist was preoccupied with mythos — and gifted at fashioning her own. (Parul Sehgal, 12/23/21, The New York Times)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, American journalist and author, dies at age 87 (Sian Cain and Edward Helmore, 12/23/21, The guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: What Joan Didion Saw: Her writing and thinking captured momentous change in American life—and in her own. (Nathan Heller, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion, One of the Greatest American Writers of All Time, Has Passed Away: Didion's journalism, essays, novels and cultural criticism are peerless in their chilly disassembling of all mistruths (Helen Holmes, 12/23/21, NY Observer)
    -OBIT: Joan Didion, Voice of a Generation and Beyond, Dies at 87 of Parkinson’s Disease (ALEX LAUER, 12/23/21, inside Hook)
    -TRIBUTE: When Joan Didion Was a Hollywood Schlockmonger: Didion’s dark estimation of the American public’s taste in movies was more damning of our culture and politics than anything she ever wrote elsewhere. (NOREEN MALONE, DEC 23, 2021, Slate)
    -TRIBUTE: The Death of Joan Didion (John Griswold, DECEMBER 26, 2021, Common Reader)
    -TRIBUTE: Right At the Beginning: Joan Didion’s obituarists largely ignore her early journalism for National Review under the stewardship of Frank Meyer. (Daniel J. Flynn, December 28, 2021, City Journal)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion Cast Off the Fictions of American Politics: Few writers examined their own assumptions and misapprehensions as intelligently as Didion. (Jacob Bacharach/December 27, 2021, New Republic)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Hidden Goal—and Mine: I’ve taught her work for more than 25 years. It had a secret, one that’s more than a guide to me and my students (DALE MAHARIDGE, DEC 24, 2021, Slate)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion and the Voice of America (Hilton Als, Dec. 29th, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion and Eve Babitz Saw Two Essential Sides of California: Babitz was Los Angeles’s defiant booster, while Didion gave fodder to naysayers’ suspicion—but the two late writers’ bodies of work beg to be taken in tandem (Alison Herman Dec 30, 2021, The Ringer)
    -TRIBUTE: Joan Didion’s Hard Way: The legacy of a genuine American figure (JOSEPH BOTTUM, January 6, 2022, National Review)
    -TRIBUTE: In memoriam: Joan Didion, 1934–2021 (Library of America, 1/06/22)
    -TRIBUTE: What I Learned From Living With Joan Didion: Cory Leadbeater on His Life-Changing Friendship With a Literary Icon (Cory Leadbeater, June 12, 2024, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Essential Joan Didion: Her distinctive prose and sharp eye were tuned to an outsider’s frequency, telling us about ourselves in essays that are almost reflexively skeptical. Here’s where to start. (Alissa Wilkinson, April 26, 2024, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Joan Didion vs. the Political Insiders (Evelyn McDonnell The New Republic October 5, 2023)
    -ESSAY: California State of Mind: Searching for Didion and Babitz in Literary Los Angeles: Marianne Eloise on Two of Her Favorite Writers—Who Could Not Be More Different (Marianne Eloise, 7/05/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The joylessness of Joan Didion: Joan Didion took herself extremely seriously (Taki, March 24, 2022, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: Didion in El Salvador (Charlotte Allen, 11 Feb 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: Joan Didion and the Magic of Grief: She went from cool customer to recorder of her own bereavement (Sandra M. Gilbert | January 3, 2022, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: The Cult of Saint Joan (NY Times, 1/31/22)
-GUIDE: A Guide to Joan Didion’s Books: Ms. Didion was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here is an overview of some of her works, as reviewed in The Times. (New York Times, 12/23/21)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion: The National Review Years (National Review, December 23, 2021)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Joan Didion in The New Yorker: The singular writer, who has died at eighty-seven, started contributing to the magazine after famously leaving its namesake city. (Erin Overbey, December 23, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: (Joan Didion, 2000-02-21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Why I Write: Excerpted from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Joan Didion)
    -INTERVIEW: 'My Wine Bills Have Gone Down.' How Joan Didion Is Weathering the Pandemic (LUCY FELDMAN, JANUARY 22, 2021, TIME)
    -INTERVIEW: Joan Didion, The Art of Fiction No. 71: Interviewed by Linda KuehlISSUE 74, FALL-WINTER 1978, Paris Review)
-DISCUSSION: Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone (Darryl Pinckney and Joan Didion, December 18, 2008, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Letter from ‘Manhattan’ (Joan Didion, August 16, 1979, NY Review of books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Gentleman in Battle a review of Men at War by Evelyn Waugh (Joan Didion, March 27, 1962, National Review)
-INTERVIEW: Joan Didion: Staking Out California (Michiko Kakutani, June 10, 1979, NY Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEWS: Joan Didion: The NPR interviews (NPR, December 23, 2021)
    -ESSAY: California cool and Magical Thinking: Joan Didion at 86: Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing (Alex Clark, 8 Feb 2021, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion : She’s been canonized for impeccable style, but Didion’s real insights were about what holds society together, or tears it apart. (Nathan Heller, January 25, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: California Dreaming With Joan Didion : Trapped in my apartment I pulled Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character and setting, and her great sense of irony. (Christopher Dickey, Apr. 19, 2020 , Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: What Keeps Us Coming Back to Joan Didion (LAURA MILLER, DEC 23, 2021, Slate)
    -PROFILE: The Zen of Joan Didion (DAVID SWICK, DECEMBER 23, 2021, Lion's Roar)
-ARCHIVES: Joan Didion (Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW: of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Dan Wakefield, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Thomas Mallon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Sarah Moroz, Dailty Beast)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Peter Tonguette, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (leo Robson, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Charles Arrowsmith, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Sarah Ditum, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: A Joan Didion Retrospective (Barnes & Noble Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater (Claire Dederer, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
-VIDEO : In Depth: Joan Didion (Book TV, C-SPAN, May 7, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion: God's Country (Nov 2, 2000 , NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : Nov 4, 1999 Joan Didion: 'The Day Was Hot and Still...' (NY Review of Books)
               Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    -REVIEW : Jun 24, 1999 Joan Didion: Uncovered Washington (NY Review of Books)
               Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story by Michael Isikoff
               Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American
               Politics by Ralph Reed
               Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American
               Decline by Robert H. Bork
    -REVIEW : Oct 22, 1998 Joan Didion: Clinton Agonistes (NY Review of Books)
               Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title
               28, United States Code, §595(c) Submitted by the Office of the
               Independent Counsel
    -REVIEW : Apr 23, 1998 Joan Didion: Varieties of Madness  (NY Review of Books)
               The Unabomber Manifesto "FC."
               A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
               Drawing Life by David Gelernter
    -REVIEW : Dec 18, 1997 Joan Didion: The Lion King  (NY Review of Books)
               Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
               Leader by Dinesh D'Souza
    -REVIEW : of THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN GARDENS Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940. By Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -ESSAY : On Going Home from  Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Why I Write (The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976)
    -EXCERPT : "The Women's Movement" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Joan Didion's "Marrying Absurd"
    -EXCERPT : From "The White Album" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from The White Album Chapter IV Soujourns
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion (dave eggers, Salon, 10/96)
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion. (Interview, Mark Marvel, Sept, 1996)
    -ARCHIVES : "didion" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "joan didion" (Find Articles)
    -Joan Didion (1934- ) (American Literature on the Web)
    -Joan Didion (Selves in the Valley)
    -PROFILE : JOAN DIDION  (Sandra Braman)
    -PROFILE : Didion as Diva (Bill Hayes, Salon)
    -ESSAY : JOAN DIDION: ONLY DISCONNECT  (October, 1979, From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison (1980))
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Bethlehem:  A Brief Structural Analysis (Allan T. Grohe, Jr.)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion and Twentieth-Century Acts of Interpretation (George P. Landow, The Core)
    -ESSAY :  Joan Didion and "Company": A Response to John Whalen-Bridge (GORDON O. TAYLOR, Connotations 6.2 (1996-97)
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Postmodern: Joan Didion and the Crisis of Narrative (Jay Porter, A Senior Essay in the English Major, Yale College, 1995)
    -ESSAY : The Hollywood Novel: Gender and Lacanian Tragedy in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (Chip Rhodes, Style)
    -REVIEW : "On Morality" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (j turner)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (1996)(MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Oct 31, 1996 Elizabeth Hardwick: In the Wasteland (NY Review of Books)
               The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Kate Tuttle, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Tai Moses, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Donna Seaman, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Anna Shapiro, Book Report)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry By Joan Didion (1992)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry by Joan Didion (Hendrik Hertzberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami by Joan Didion (1987)(James Chace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR. By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR By Joan Didion (Warren Hoge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy by Joan Didion (1984)(Mary McCarthy, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : BOOK NOTES : A Talked-About Dedication (Esther Fein, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Caliparanoia dreamin' : The Golden State's helter-skelter soul has long been the fertile crescent of fear, but we're moving on now -- to something worse. (Anthony York, Salon)