Book Reviews
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What Does Nothing Mean? – Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Play It As It Lays is the second novel of Joan Didion that shows us Maria’s spiral descent into self-destruction. The anti-heroine, a forgettable actress and the wife of a director, is a decadent locked up in a mental institution while pining for her sick young daughter and tracing, retracing her way to self-discovery. She does so with episodic narrations of her memories of socialite parties, casual drugs, bad sex, intimate suicides, illegal abortions, and lots of driving on freeways. The novel, written in prose that is controlled, terse, and destructive, is ultimately about nothing.

I failed to brace myself when I decided to read this. I picked it up just because it is listed in Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels. I didn’t even bother researching what it’s about; I just felt that there’s something about gambling in it. True, there is a little gambling, but that is nothing. There’s a lot of adjectives going on, like bleak, dreadful, sordid, painful. And yes, it ended up being my favorite novel last year, but no, I would only recommend it with great caution.

Considered as the breakthrough book of Didion, this novel presents itself to me as a mosaic. Maria, Mar-eye-ah, Wyeth, opens the novel with an allusion: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” She then proceeds to tell us on what philosophy her life so far is based: nothing applies.

When I was ten years old my father taught me to assess quite rapidly the shifting probabilities on a craps layout: I could trace a layout in my sleep, the field here and the pass line all around, even money on Big Six or Eight, five-for-one on Any Seven. Always when I play back my father’s voice it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.

That is the entirety of Chapter 74. The novel’s form, atomized into very short chapters, gives us a shattered sense of time, and that is exactly what the author intended to do. As if that isn’t enough, the prose is as detached and as hollow as the superficial glamour of Hollywood. People have this notion that this place is empty, but at the time of the novel’s publication, it was the herald of the truth behind the movie industry. It’s a confirmation of what people think of Hollywood.

[Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.]

Maria deals with the lifestyle and people around her in a composed and almost jaded manner, and this only makes it harder for her. How can one be cool with all the strains pressing down on her? She loses her self-identity in the midst of all these, and out of desperation to find herself, she takes aimless road trips that would rip the needle off the speedometer.

The long drives on freeways are just a few of the many metaphors that can be detected here. The most obvious one, the rattlesnake, is introduced at the first part of the book. Didion’s daughter even calls this “mommy’s snake book” because of the animal’s pervasive presence, as pervasive as the many men with whom Maria is connected.

[Except when they let Carter or Helene in, I never minded Neuropsychiatric and I don’t mind here. Nobody bothers me. The only problem is Kate. I want Kate.]

Although Maria seems to be a doormat who willingly does drugs just because she’s told by a man to take a sniff during an interrupted, or faked, orgasm, she is deeply a strong woman. She may easily submit herself to the men who take advantage of her, but her ability to survive is a proof of her inner strength, not to mention her proclivities towards women with strong characters. Also, it shows that she’s an affectionate mother. We would be presented now and then with reminiscences of her daughter, Kate. These in themselves are touching, and they become moving as soon as she tells herself that she’s going to get her back and build a better life with her.

As the novel progresses, more and more white space spreads over the pages as if to say that there is nothing more to do, that this nothing novel will gradually vanish, as if nothing happened. The chapters become more sparse, more stark, probably to signify the continuous degradation of Maria. She crumbles so low that she will discover and tell us what nothing means.

[One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and I keep on playing.

Why, BZ would say.

Why not, I say.]

In one gracious interview for a book club, Didion admitted to being terribly unhappy while she was writing this novel. When asked if she would like to change something in it or if she wanted to redo it, she answered that it came out just the way she wanted it to be unlike her first novel. This then is her first novel in another sense.

But no, she doesn’t want to go back to this. She has not even read it for a long while. I was just as unhappy while I was reading it. I knew that I was going to be destroyed at the end, but I cannot look away. It’s both unbearable to stop or to continue, so why not do the latter?

Dates Read: March 18 to 21, 2012

No. of Pages: 214

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



  1. I don’t think I’ve read this, but if I did it was so long ago I’ve forgotten it. Now you’ve braced everyone else, even though you hadn’t braced yourself!


  2. benjaminngo95 says

    I enjoyed your commentary. I would have enjoyed it more with page numbers for the quotations!


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