Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Play It as It LaysPlay It as It Lays by Joan Didion

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

She had announced her willingness to cause her subjects pain in Slouching towards Bethlehem, but at the heart of Didion’s sense of morality and her sense of style, which cannot be separated, hurting the reader’s feelings is also part of the writer’s moral obligation.
—Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil

The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.
—Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement” (The White Album)

This most painful and disturbing 1970 novel has perhaps disappeared behind the screen of its legacy. Yes, at its center is a heroine who, with her Hollywood travails and her “su-su-summertime, summertime sadness” has since become a comfortable pop-culture commodity. But in Didion’s capable hands this now-familiar archetype is a late-20th-century update on the heroine of consciousness who has always been the serious literary novel’s stock-in-trade since Samuel Richardson.

In Play It as It Lays, our heroine is a fading would-be starlet, bloodied but unbroken by Hollywood’s brutal traffic in female flesh, wearing “a cotton skirt” or “a vinyl dress,” barefoot because “she want[s] the touch of the accelerator,” driving with aimless purpose up and down the southern California freeways or out across the desert to Nevada:

She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it once without breaking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.

Didion’s 31-year-old Maria Wyeth was born to a Nevada gambler who bet and lost his fortune on houses and towns; a different kind of gambler, Maria moved first to New York and then, with the promising director Carter Lang, out to L.A. to be in pictures. She was in two of Carter’s, but their marriage is over, their young daughter in an institution, her career on the rocks. That, more or less, is where the narrative begins, though it is being recounted at a later date, partially by Maria and partially by a third-person narrator, after Maria has herself been institutionalized.

She tells us her name is “pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset”: this most perceptive heroine emphasizes the organ of vision, but we might also hear the “I” sound resonating through both her name and surname. As Didion observes in her 1976 essay, “Why I Write”:

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.

Didion is a connoisseur of aggression and hostility; she holds in quiet, withering contempt anyone who would deny these as primal forces in life. Hence her dismissal at the beginning of her career of the political left with its hopes for social transformation, and her equal scorn in the second half of her career for the political right’s turn to neoconservative imperialism. No permanent revolution for her, either in its second-wave-feminist or right-Trotskyist variants. For the truth, as Maria tells her psychiatrists, is that

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. […] There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened. […] They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

If there are only “certain facts” and none but imaginary connections between or among them, then ideology is a pernicious imposition on the recalcitrant real. Only the writer, who confesses herself the designer of an artifice (even in Didion’s “New Journalist” nonfiction), may legitimately so impose, and only because she does not claim to “apply” a truth but only to disclose and artfully array a few facts. And if we don’t like the facts, perhaps because we are feminists or neoconservatives and therefore harbor certain finalized ideals that bear no relation to chaotic reality, then we are not worth the nervous and glamorous pleasures of Didion’s cool company.

But to say the above is to fall into the trap of making Didion sound more unusual than she is in literary history. For example, Barbara Grizzutti Harrison published the canonical Didion “takedown” in 1979:

Didion is like a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara: she will think about whatever it is she thinks about tomorrow when she dabbles her toes in her pool, all the while calling attention beguilingly to the hairshirt she has fashioned for herself…which may explain why so many male critics find her adorable. (Harrison’s ellipses)

Guilty as charged, I guess. Harrison’s opening complaint that Didion lets us know in her writing that she has privilege, money, and good taste is literarily irrelevant—tell it to Virginia Woolf, why don’t you—but her main polemical gambit, insisting that Didion is a corrosive, facile, haughty skeptic who puts faith only in high literary artifice and individual imagination, implicates most of modern literature.

Where do Didion’s celebrated style and memorable motifs come from? Read her in the context of modern poetry. Forget the oft-cited Hemingway—the howling desert and the despair are from T. S. Eliot, the floral arrangements and the skepticism from Wallace Stevens; the rattlesnakes have escaped from Marianne Moore’s menagerie, where animals stand for obdurate reality. And Didion’s major (and ideologically heterodox) female precursors and contemporaries share her wariness of or disgust with organized politics and especially identity politics.

Think only of Willa Cather’s and Marianne Moore’s Republicanism, Zora Neale Hurston’s mockery of the “sobbing school of Negrohood,” Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic censure of modernity as such, Elizabeth Bishop’s refusal to be anthologized in female-only collections, Susan Sontag’s reply to Adrienne Rich charging feminism with fascist irrationalism, Doris Lessing’s indictment of what was then called “political correctness” (and is now called “wokeness” or “social justice”) as the dangerous descendant of Stalinist terror, A. S. Byatt’s speculation that feminist victimology has ended women’s two-century streak of writing great novels, or even the Hegelian philosopher Gillian Rose’s brisk dismissal in her harrowing and radiant memoir Love’s Work: “[F]eminism never offered me any help. For it fails to address the power of women as well as their powerlessness…”

Writing on another modernist fascist Didion admires, W. B. Yeats (of the “slouching towards” declinist formulation), Denis Donoghue quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien on the fallacy that writers should be left-wing:

A Marxist critique which starts from the assumption that bad politics make for bad style will continue “not to succeed.” The opposite assumption, though not entirely true, would be nearer to the truth. The politics of the left—any left, even a popular “national movement”—impose, by their emphasis on collective effort and on sacrifice, a constraint on the artist, a constraint which may show itself in artificialities of style, vagueness or simple carelessness. Right-wing politics, with their emphasis on the freedom of the elite, impose less constraint, require less pretence, allow style to become more personal and direct.

(I offer the above paragraphs to any university administrators wishing to preserve the cash-cow academic humanities against the right-wing campaign to have them publicly defunded: just tell the Republican state legislatures, truthfully, that the modern literary canon, the female luminaries by no means excluded, is reactionary as hell.)

The only aspect of Didion’s conservatism that the Catholic leftist Harrison finds “a refreshing antidote to doctrinaire radicalism-by-rote” is her dissent on the presumed good of abortion. For Play It as It Lays really is a conservative novel as well as a nihilistically skeptical and individualist one. (To understand how nihilism, individualism, and conservatism naturally go together, see my essay on Djuna Barnes.)

Play It as It Lays is a lament over personal and cultural sterility, figured as California Gothic. The novel’s desert, like Eliot’s, signifies the modern absence of fertility, while its dystopic liquid imagery of sluggish, toxic saltwater indicates that modern America and its Hollywood apogee/advertisement are nothing more than a polluted womb:

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline. The kelp hummed with flies. The water lapped warm, forceless.

This maternal elegy’s plot focuses on the termination of Maria’s pregnancy. The baby belongs to her lover Les Goodwin, but her husband Carter Lang uses their child Kate as a bargaining chip to force her to obtain an illegal abortion, which she does in a seedy bedroom in Encino. The right to keep the child, not to abort it, is the right the novel’s cruel male villain infringes upon.

The horrifying scene of the operation (“‘Hear that scraping, Maria?’ the doctor said”) echoes throughout the novel. For one thing, her abortion destroys Maria’s fantasy of traditional nuclear family life with Les and Kate in “a house by the sea”:

Every day in that house she would cook while Kate did her lessons. Kate would sit in a shaft of sunlight, her head bent over a pine table, and later when the tide ran out they would gather mussels together, Kate and Maria, and still later all three of them would sit down together at the big pine table and Maria would light a kerosene lamp and they would eat the mussels and drink a bottle of cold white wine and after a while it would be time to lie down again, on the clean white sheets.


[T]he still center of the daylight world was never a house by the sea but the corner of Sunset and La Brea. In that empty sunlight Kate could do no lessons, and the mussels on any shore Maria knew were toxic. Instead of calling Les Goodwin she bought a silver vinyl dress, and tried to stop thinking about what he had done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it. (Didion’s italics)

(Note Didion’s poetic allusions to Poe’s “kingdom by the sea” and Eliot’s “still center of the turning world”—this is a prose, simple as it seems, on which nothing is lost.)

Maria can’t renew her relationship with Les Goodwin because, she tells, him, “‘[t]here’s no point'”: “she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino,” implying that marriage or even sex without progeny is empty. The novel’s rather insistent queer-bashing (Didion uses slurs to describe the gay and bi characters even in the objective third-person narration) disturbingly makes the same point. Maria even has a dream that likens the murder of children and abortion not only to each other but also to the Holocaust—a comparison that remains a staple of anti-abortion rhetoric.

Under the novel’s affectless style, half Imagist prose-poem and half-screenplay, runs a lament for all discarded children; this howl of protest against the disposability of children concealed beneath an otherwise cynical or even heartless literary performance reminds me of Lolita:

She could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from the page: the four-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday.

Maria’s only motive for surviving, the only reason she does not consummate her self-destructive urge, is because she wants to be reunited with her institutionalized child Kate. She charges Carter, Kate’s father, with abandoning their daughter to psychiatry (another foolishly totalizing and oppressive modern ideology in Didion’s scheme) because he has neglected her absolute individuality:

Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.

Maria vows at the end of the novel to persist in the face of nihilism, to save her daughter, and to enjoy and even monetize the fecund beauty of the world:

I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is “nothing.” Now that I have the answer, my plans for the future are these: (1) get Kate, (2) live with Kate alone, (3) do some canning. Damson plums, apricot preserves. Sweet India relish and pickled peaches. Apple chutney. Summer squash succotash. There might even be a ready market for such canning: you will note that after everything I remain Harry and Francine Wyeth’s daughter and Benny Austin’s godchild. For all I know they knew the answer too and pretended they didn’t. You call it as you see it and stay in the action. (Didion’s italics)

She accedes to her parents’ gambler-ethic legacy of staying in the game and playing it as it lays. Translate Maria’s goals into socio-political terms: non-traditional family life, fulfilling creative work, and money and marketing.

Didion’s comparison of abortion to Nazism and her affirmation of capitalism both remind me of Clarence Thomas, and this novel also recalls Corey Robin’s analysis of the arch-conservative Supreme Court justice. According to Robin, Thomas was and remains a black nationalist, convinced that white racism is so omnipresent and insoluble that only the most ferocious, despairing, and enterprising individualism, combined with a focus on the family, can possibly answer it; the gender politics of Play It as It Lays are comparable.

Not that Didion would, if she were in her prime today, be a Republican; I tend to imagine a 20- or 30something Didion in 2019 drawn to the crypto-reactionary anti-identity-politics hard left, like Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova of the notorious Red Scare podcast, which I think owes something (though perhaps not always tastefulness) to the iconic author’s sensibility.

All of the above is very neat, but I did finish the novel with a complicating question. Maria’s narrative begins, famously, “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Let’s take Didion’s anti-feminism seriously enough to wonder if Maria is referring to herself as inscrutable villain rather than to the world that has victimized her. She is certainly subjected to her share of vile abuse throughout the book, but the elliptical narrative gives us evidence to glimpse Maria as menace to those around her. She may be—to switch Shakespearean tragedies—more sinning than sinned against.

The novel’s climax finds her complicit in a suicide, and we might wonder why her daughter’s keepers are so disturbed by her visits. Her closest female friend in the novel judges her at last to be essentially a murderer and declares, “She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria.” Her parents advised her that “overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake“—perhaps a warning to the reader.

Has this update on sentimental fiction’s weepy heroine been a Gothic monstrosity all along? The inexhaustible riddle of individuality is what this extraordinary novel offers us—and leaves us to explain, vainly, as we will.