As with the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ reading this novel in 2007 feels just as vivid and striking as it must have been for readers nearly forty years ago.
Didion’s most acclaimed novel is entirely new to me, and reads very sparsely, instead relying on what is unsaid or expressed through the desert landscapes, empty stretches of highway and driving nowhere fast.
The story is (mostly) narrated by the main character, Maria Wyeth, a 31 year old, newly-divorced, washed up actress who is struggling to work out what her purpose in life is. Set in late 1960s California, it depicts a morality-free Hollywood full of drink, drugs and movie industry types in which Maria is still a part, yet trying to escape. She tells us, “I have trouble with as it was……I try to live in the now…..Nothing applies.”
She and her ex-husband, Carter, have a daughter, Kate, who is institutionalised for a medical and physical illness that it not fully explained in the story. Maria regularly visits her daughter and hopes to ‘get her out’ and one day live a simpler life. Maria’s love and concern for Kate seems to be the only ‘real’ thing in her life; much more important than her dead marriage, previous boyfriends or one night stands.
Maria falls pregnant by a friend of her husband (Les Goodwin) and is encouraged to have an abortion by Carter. Try as she might in her world of casual sex, vacuous friends and the ever-availability of drugs, she is unable to rid herself of the guilt surrounding her abortion. This is still easy to identify with today and must have been a pretty daring subject to tackle back in 1970 when abortion was frowned upon (and often illegal). Didion writes sparsely but expertly: “She bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it.”
Didion’s Maria may have long rejected a conventional and moral life, but she has not been able to replace the old values with anything sustainable. Didion’s prose is very sparing and the desert landscapes, freeways and air conditioning units read almost like a film script: it is easy to imagine how ‘seeing’ such scenes could even more effectively depict the emptiness and despair of Maria’s life.
Maria’s friend (and sometime lover? Swinger? Drug supplier?) BZ kills himself; possibly assisted by Maria – at least that what his wife Helen and Carter believe. She is not officially punished or set free by this event, but ‘gives up’ and seemingly willingly enters a hospital to recover and retreat from the world.
As I am not familiar with Didion’s other novels – or the literary set she belongs to – I can only go by my own knowledge. The characters in ‘Play it as it lays’ remind me of those in the ‘Great Gatsby’: frenetically busy drinking, fornicating, shopping, talking of nothing – money to spend but with lives of no meaning. It also reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ with similarly detached and seemingly brief views of lives lived without purpose or moral compass to guide them by. Perhaps these comparisons are obvious to the rest of you readers, but to me this book deserves a place amongst them.
I found it a very sad and disturbing read. Despite Maria’s irresponsible actions, I felt a lot of pity for her. No career, no loving relationship, a child that she can’t look after and no future that she can see for herself. She wants to tell us, her readers, that she doesn’t care about her past or future, but many comments betray her.
After the abortion, Didion writes, “She drove as far as Romaine and then pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because something had just come through to her……there must have been a relentless count somewhere, because this was the day, the day the baby would have been born.”
I think I need to read it through it again; and this time savour each sentence. I’ll conclude by saying that this is the sort of book that deserves several reads, and is one of those that is likely to have generated/will generate more words about it than the book itself contains. Lacerating, moving, tragic.