Comments 4

Don’t ask why – Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Yes, that is a whole chapter

People ask Maria, Mar-eye-ah, what makes Iago evil. She doesn’t know, because she never asks.

That is sort of paraphrasing the first line of this novel. She then proceeds to tell us a little about herself. An actress, early thirties, married, divorced, one kid named Kate. And then a few more things that meander through her decadent life. And then two more characters introduce themselves: Helene, a woman whose role in Maria’s life I cannot pinpoint yet, and Carter, Maria’s husband. Future ex-husband.

And then the novel starts, restarts, at Chapter 1. In episodes.

“I want a very large steak,” she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o’clock that night. “And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to go somewhere with very loud music.”

“Like where.”

“I don’t know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music.”

“What’s the matter with you.”

“I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.”

That’s the entirety of Chapter 26. The novel is bereft of embellishments. Maria wants to eat a heavy meal and go to a club. Very matter of fact. And very hazy. It’s like catching the conversations of strangers on a long train ride. You seem to know these people; otherwise you wouldn’t be listening. You don’t know the people they are talking about. You think you know the things they are talking about. You don’t have the details. You do have a vague sense of what’s going on in their lives, of how sad they are, how lost, how empty.

In this novel, we don’t ask why Maria acts the way she does. She doesn’t ask herself, so why should we? So we read the sparse chapters, some of them filling half the page with white space, just like the chapter above.

Instead of answers to whys, we are given a lot of facts, certain facts that can mislead us. And why do we bother with these facts that can be misleading? I don’t know. And I said don’t ask why.

It’s almost like poetry because it uses so little words and yet, you know that this is a scathing story of a troubled woman who appears to have a few acquaintances, who is forever pining for her daughter locked in a hospital, who is sporadically wondering what happened to her mother the last time she took the car for a drive, who is always told by her husband what she has to do, and who, in the middle part, the part where I am already on as of this writing, will stop listening and start doing what she wants. The events are strung so tightly that the narrative is a little restrained lest the strings break directly and lash on your face. All your senses have to be open while reading this.

The challenge to a novel with economized storytelling is that it can be very dubious but very insightful. After all, I might be just overanalyzing. The facts can be misleading, right? So let’s just play, I mean read, it as it lays.

And if I finish this novel heavy with dread and pushing people to read it, don’t ask why.

Date Started: March 18, 2012. 07:00 PM. Book #15 of 2012.



  1. Kristel says

    I really want to read this book but I’m kind of afraid that it’s going to destroy me emotionally, ahaha. I listened to an interview of Didion once discussing this book and she said that what she was attempting to do with the episodic structure was to convey the smashing of time. Today, it’s a pretty typical literary trick but she was doing something radical (as a woman, no less) when she wrote in the the 70s


    • Oh my, my body is depressed and my mind is constipated still because of this. I just finished it last night. I agree that you have to be emotionally prepared for this. I didn’t expect it to be this way. I just thought it would be a more modern Gatsby, but no, I daresay it’s so much better.

      I don’t know about the smashing of time, but I felt no sense of time in it. It’s just too empty. It feels like the events are suspended in space and time has stopped running. Would you mind giving me the link to that interview? :D


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