This book from 1970 is very relevant still today, and not just to women. Though very much a West Coast book on the female condition of the late 60s in a drug culture ruled by men, the book is also, amoung other things, simply about a breakdown. Some may disagree, and that is a repsected stand point. The main character, Maria, could just be a nihilist, or a fatalist, but she is definitely no Christian or Buddhist. Agnostic is probably the best way to describe her. To be aethiest requires a responsibility and an involvement that Maria is either not capable of or does not think is worth the time.
This book is dark, sad, depressing, and just as much a study one one sex as the other. There are plastic personalities, phony sentiments, and a loose plot that I rather thought, at first, was just plain weak. But it was done on purpose by Joan Didion for a specific effect, and this was to give you a seconal, alcholic, obsessive compulsive look at the mind and emotions of Maria and her surrounding in 84 very short vignette chapters (some only a few lines long, the longest chapter being on average 4 pages).
Without further ado, below is the final “close-reading” paper I am turning in to my American Literature Since 1865 professor. The final reflection and critical analysis paper I will ever have to do for a University. I am graduating this Spring 2011. Thank you. I know. Ha Ha! Here you are.
Maria is a mess—and that is the best way to begin discussing Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. The physical lay-out of the novel itself is an artistic (though tree-killing) visual spectacle which is also psychologically affecting; the space on the page with “nothing” printed and the short nature of the chapters (some filling barely a quarter of the page) support this psychosis Maria and the other characters have about being in a place “where nothing is.” A mental state, a Physical place. The reader is left with a feeling that Maria is floating through life, undefined except for; (a) the drugs and booze she puts into her system; and (b) the list of things she knows she doesn’t want to do (Didion pp. 52).
But what does she want to do? Is there any ambition? Does she aspire to anything or has she fatalistically resigned herself to a fate of random bumper cars; a frazzled, nihilistic gamble where anything that happens just happens and we should all just accept it? Through a vapid, mysterious plot line some of these questions are half-answered; then again, it was probably intended to feel this way because the narrative is basically told through Maria. Didion probably had specific intentions in telling the story with such an (arguably) light plot. Other concepts were at work and received the spot lot beyond the plot.
Maria begins to paint a picture of her resignation and fatalism as early as page 3 in the chapter simply headed “Maria” where she ponders how two snakes which look the same have different numbers and strengths of poison glands (perhaps BZ and Maria, but you don’t know this until the final page). The idea of venom discussed so early can easily raise a red flag early on of the type of book it is likely to be, and does not disappoint as the cast of characters inject themselves with different vices and chemicals that could very well be “poisonous,” not to mention the hot venom which that spit at each other, void of respect and humility. Pretentiousness is also a good descriptor.
Maria tells us not so subtly that she has stopped racking her brain over reasons why things are, and just deals with what is unchangeable reality to her (whether true or not). “I am what I am” she says, “To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point” (Didion pp. 3). This serves as only the preface for the focus of this close read, which is the very end of the story. By this point, after reading vignettes regarding control, depression, and misguided loves, the plot comes together into a sharper focus: in a world with unanswerable questions, sometimes all one may feel is a helplessness so deep that all they can do it “play it as it lays.” Very little is ever truly in someone’s complete control, so why struggle or have high expectations? It’s not a bright way to look at life, but it is how some see it. “What’s the matter?” Carter asks Maria on page 195 of the novel, “What do you want? I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you want.” And Maria simply replies, “I don’t want anything.” Carter demands again: “Tell me.” Maria replies: “I just told you.” Carter proceeds to curse at her. She wants “nothing”; a state where something cannot be taken away because it is not there.
Throughout the novel there were these nods to the reader that she was not only without control in her own life, but for some reason did not really care either way. One could ask why she never simply ran away from all of the selfishness and phoniness, but the reality is that she did not choose to in the story. “Why” this was her choice can probably only be speculated on, however it is not hard to think that she perhaps perceived running as a way to take responsibility for herself and she did not want to be let down by attempting a new life only to find that control was still out of her reach. At least she knew what was coming when people made decisions for her and she did not have to think about it. She only had to float through it.
This brings us to the second excerpt which I consider connected, and this is the true end of the book; BZ’s suicide and the role which Maria played in it. The book cannot be understood if the reader does not reflect on these final chapters (Chapter 83 and 84). They represent the two different snakes that appear the same but have different parts “inside” (read: life philosophies). BZ has far too many Seconal pills and is going on to Maria in a ramble about life and the desert, and about “waking up one day and [not feeling] like playing anymore” (Didion pp.272). BZ was the other side of the coin “that is” Maria. He was a character that did not want to play anymore and it all became too much. BZ doesn’t understand why one would keep on “playing”—he did not see the point. Maria on the other had is saying “why not keep on playing.” Why end it? What does it matter? It will end soon enough, and like gambling; some days I will be up, some days I will be in the hole, but it can never be all wins or all loses can it? And if nothing else, Maria would say, hey, I’m entertained. I may not be happy about it, but there is something in nothing. Heavy thoughts.
It is possible that Maria may one day reach her limits and find herself in the same mindset as BZ, but it is equally arguable that they are two different people with two different expectations from life. BZ wanted more control and more out of life, and when he couldn’t get it and felt worn and old, he ended his life; Maria on the other hand has accepted her fate and the random butterfly affects of life. It’s still unclear however why she herself never considered ending her life if she truly never felt anything was really worth striving to achieve or to experience, but maybe she was simply too lazy. I do not feel she was afraid she would be missing out on anything, and I also feel that she would have the guts to carry out a suicide should she decide. So then why? There is simply something in the complex (or ultra-simple) philosophy of Maria that makes her want to continue to live and breathe every day. This reason may be her daughter, but I feel it is more than that (or less than that), but I know not the exact reason.
The very last lines of the novel are in chapter 84:
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. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.
(Didion pp. 214)
Page 87, 89, 90, 91, 93 and 95 is just one of the many stretches of the novel where the author either tells us that “Maria said nothing” or Maria’s character actually tells another character “It’s nothing.” The word “nothing” is running rampant through the text. But it, like everything included in this piece, is intended to paint a picture. Maria does not have much to say, and while it can be argued that she is a total psychopath having a nervous breakdown, it is also possible to argue that she is content with the insanity around her and accepts it, therefore does not have much to say about it. That is what really concerns the people she surrounds herself with. Not all of their immoral actions, no, but the fact that she is not responding to them the way they think she should or the way they would respond. It is disconcerting.
Out there where nothing is, on the West Coast and in the desert and in Las Vegas, Maria has found a certain comfort and solace in knowing she has no control, and thus can almost relax while those around her struggle to find meanings and grab at the stars. She seems just fine driving fast down a highway and engaging in direct and indirect abuse from herself and others. Though this final quote is perhaps larger than is usually accepted, I felt it had to be included as it says so much and in all the right ways for how this book can be most accurately interpreted thematically, socially, psychologically, and poetically:
Modernity has promised Man many things, the most important of which is that with God dead, we are free to jettison the archaic Judeo-Christian morality which has held us in thrall lo these many years and can now do, essentially, whatever we wish. This basic promise was finally and fully embraced during the 1960’s with Women’s Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, the rise of the Drug Culture, the rejection of the nuclear family… All of these different waves of social experimentation had a one thing in common, each was premised on the idea that individual freedom is the paramount value, more important than any responsibility owed to our fellow men. Together they elevate the self above neighborhood, community, society and family. They place the individual at the of his own universe, whole and sufficient unto himself, beholden to no one, dependent on no one.
Joan Didion’s novel, Play It As It Lays, though written in 1970, already recognized the horrific consequences of this monstrous ideology of selfishness.”
- Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays. 1970. New York. FSG Classics.
- Judd, Orrin. Brothersjudd.com Review of “Play It As It Lays”