“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.”
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion is a cold, distant, unpredictable, and emotionally detached look at the lifestyles of Hollywood’s lowlights in the 1960’s. The commonalities among the “talent” that have stayed true throughout the years of film; from black and white, to silent films, to active dialogue, and finally to colour, is timeless. The longing for personal relationships, monumental success, the feeling of depression, hopelessness, and the need for self-medication in order to play the role expected by others will never subside.
At the start of the novel, the “protagonist” thirty-one-year-old mother, actress, and ex-wife Maria Wyeth, is a patient at a psychiatric hospital for unspecified reasons. What we learn is that she demonstrates a strong sexual appetite, she doesn’t question much of anything, she doesn’t make plans, she doesn’t concern herself with the past and only focuses on what’s going on at that very instant. Having occasional feelings of nothingness that gravitate to encompass her whole being from her dreams to her waking life, you realize that she is living a rather fruitless existence. Her only motivating factor in life at this point is to be reunited with her four-year-old child Kate. The story stabilizes as the following pages are utilized as a retrospective on her life at various points. We get to see her as a child growing up in Silver Wells, Nevada, her limited success as an actress, her seamless transition to a sedated anti-socialite, and all of her own personal dramas that have concurrently traveled shotgun along the interstates and various freeways.
“I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes me a letter. It is no longer necessary for them even to write me. I know when someone is thinking of me. I learn to deal with this.”
Maria doesn’t live in a world of rewards, only punishments. She doesn’t understand friendships or social conventions but at times needs the presence of strong male figures to blow off some steam, if you know what I mean. At times throughout the book Maria looks death in the eye and oddly enough death is the first to blink. Some would suggest that she has a self-destructive personality structure and Maria would not disagree with that assessment. As a struggling model/actress it is assumed that you would make yourself widely available to friends willing to extend a helping hand or people in the industry that can lead you in the right direction. But why is Maria so different? She was once her director/husband’s muse, regarded as the “talent”, she has now become relegated to bit parts and is now considered a second rate prostitute by party goers. Maria’s growing distaste for these famous people players leads to empty promises, gratuitous sex, nervous breakdowns, impromptu road trips crossing state lines, or in one instance grand theft auto. This story in general covers many serious topics that require further discussions, but I couldn’t help but laugh as Maria would RSVP her spot at a party, promise her colleagues that she would be there, and essentially has her foot through the door; but as quickly as she shows her face she jumps in her car and travels to the opposite end of the state. As everyone around you begins to think you’re crazy you become a little bit crazy yourself.
” ‘You talk crazy any more and I’ll leave.’ ‘Leave. For Christ’s sake leave.’ She would not take her eyes from the dry wash. ‘All right.’ ‘Don’t,’ he would say then. ‘Don’t.’ ‘Why do you say those things. Why do you fight.’ He would sit on the bed and put his head in his hands. ‘To find out if you’re alive.’ “
Harsh perspective of the film industry in Hollywood which is becoming relevant as time goes on. As Maria’s ignorance towards her own career fails to settle, her life begins to mimic that of the original “It” Girl, Clara Bow. The quick and painful death of a promising career, the slow realization, the fading to black while younger woman take the stage is inevitable, curtains closed no chance for an encore or a final bow, nouveau fame and recognition, but in the end she was not bred for it, she’s just a small town girl, she’s the same girl at thirty-six years old that left Silver Wells at eighteen hoping for a better life. She’s still waiting.
Play It As It Lays reminded me of the adult rendition of The Catcher In The Rye. For all of the delirium and anesthetized characters of Didion’s book there was just as much angst ridden characters with mental and emotional instability in Salinger’s. Didion was more focused on an environment where the surrounding characters are hiding in a shroud of illusion while the protagonist is transparent remaining true to herself, forsaking her health and the betterment of those around her. It seems to initiate in childhood being raised by an ambitious, albeit ineffective gambling father and a yearning for more out of life, neurotic mother. In an environment where reality refuses to set in, it ultimately leaves Maria on a crash course for quick getaways and achieving success any which way she can. What we end up finding is that without a true purpose, life is only as confusing and disheartening as you make it and that there is not enough sedatives in the world to combat the feeling of insurmountable peril.
“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 keep on playing.”
The book is constructed in a way that makes it hard to comprehend what the hell’s going on in most instances throughout the book. After a brief introduction where your thrown right into the snake pit, the narrative becomes very vivid and lyrical which cause some distraction,but as the title indicates, you kind of have to make do with what’s in front of you and don’t concern yourself with the way behind or the way ahead. If there was ever a book that necessitated an immediate second reading it would be this one. It reminded me of a tricky boxer where you’re rolling with the punches trying to get the timing down and when the ten rounds are over you wish you could do it all over again because you would know how to handle it better. Despite my troubles I still found it to be accessible once the back story and characters were introduced. I thoroughly enjoyed the darkness that was experienced in the daytime, the ambiguity surrounding the dialogue, and the mystique surrounding the characters. I enjoyed the authors style and look forward to another interesting reading experience in the future.
“If Freddy Chaikin thought she carried trouble with her he would avoid her, because trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Failure, illness, fear, they were seen as infectious, contagious blights on glossy plants. It seemed to Maria that even the receptionist was avoiding her eyes, fearing contamination.”