Engl 4300
Recent British and American WritersLuke Whisnant

Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays

I had...a technical intention...to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it
would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely
exist on the page at all....white space. Empty space.... --Didion



Maria Wyeth, 31, actress, former model
Kate, M's daughter
Carter Lang, film director, M's estranged husband
BZ, producer for Carter's films, gay (or bi?) but married to
Helene, mid-30s, BZ's wife, M's friend
Freddy Chaikin, M's agent (Carter's too)
Les Goodwin, M's lover, father of baby, screenwriter
Ivan Costello, M's old bf from her NYC days
Larry Kulik, M's neighbor, shady lawyer
Carlotta, BZ's multi-millionaire mother
Suzannah Wood, Carter's lover and star of his film (M's replacement)
Benny Austin, M's parents' friend
Paulette, M's father's lover


Frame: the book begins and ends with first person narrative from M (also two other first-person POVs, very brief, from Helene and Carter at beginning, never to be heard from again). In between is the heart of the novel--M's story in third person limited POV.

Chapters: three monologues followed by 84 short chapters, some only a few lines long, most of them scenic; you could film it. A very visual narrative, dialogue-driven, cinematic.

Didion: "I had...a technical intention...to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all....white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book -- a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a white book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams....

Plot: Because the narrative is elliptical, the plot is submerged (may even seem plotless); this is also partly due to M's worldview: if nothing adds up, if there is no cause & effect, then how can there be plot (since plot is "causally linked events"). However, there is narrative (a sequence of events), some of which may be causal despite M's view; and there are key scenes:

Ch 11 (and last sentence of 10): M is pregnant
First Plot Point ch 13: Carter forces M to have abortion
Ch 25: the abortion
Midpoint: ch. 37: the divorce
Second Plot Point ch 66: back with Carter
Ch 67: Carter / Ivan / Les / Carter
Ch 76: M's justification
Ch 83: BZ's suicide



Nihilism n [L nihil nothing] 1 a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is a senseless and useless b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and esp. of moral truths

Fatalism n [L fatalis, fr. fatum, fate] : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance for all time in such a manner that human beings are powerless to change them; also : a belief in or attitude determined by this doctrine


Motifs and Themes

Snakes. Representative of evil/peril/randomness? :1, 59, 104, 197, 200, 204
Nothing. Maria as nihilist. Hemingway echoes. Throughout, but esp. last chs
Insanity. Encounters with mad people; M's mother unbalanced; M in institution
Food: eggs and egg-shapes, eggroll. Fertility symbols.
Kate. Kate is not so much a character as a motif?
Fear of aging, of losing looks, ch 7, 45-46, p 160, 169, 178, 192, 196
Gambling, playing, play it as it lays, card games: 53, 200, throughout
Yearning for lost mother: chs 16, 27, 28, 29, 44, 47
Plumbing: 73, 96-98, 104, 117, and throughout
Male protectors (Les, Ivan, Larry Kulik, BZ, throughout 2nd half)
Rough sex & menage a trois: ch 62-63, 66, 67, 72


Signature Sentence Patterns

Statement followed by colon followed by elaboration, a kind of Q-A or call-and-response: "In fact, she liked watching the picture: the girl on the screen had a definite knack for controlling her own destiny." cf. pp 63, 75, 78, 79, 85, 96, 99, 114, 142, 170

Main clause followed by subordinate clause which further refines idea of main clause: "If she was not she lost the day's rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum." cf. 20, 39, 48, 63, many other examples

Triplets: "She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline." cf. pp 140 and throughout

Run-on sentences, especially for the stream-of-consciousness section of the abortion scene (ch 25); also cf. 114, 141, 170.

Repetition and parallel structure: many many examples; see 141 for a good one.


Biographical Trivia

Didion at one time owned a 1969 yellow Corvette Stingray exactly like Maria's. "Joan was a fearful child... scared of rattlesnakes in the river....she is strikingly frail (5'2" and 95 lbs)....When she was five, Joan wrote her first story: a tale of a woman who dreamed she was freezing to death in the Arctic, only to wake up and find herself in the scorching heat of the Sahara. Though she lives in LA, when finishing each of her novels she goes home to her parents' house in Sacramento, to write her last pages in her childhood bedroom." --from Michiko Kakutani's essay, "Joan Didion: Staking Out California" (The New York Times Magazine, 10 June 1979: 34-50).


A Few Words from the Critics

The following excerpts are quoted from Joan Didion: Essays & Conversations. Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Princeton NJ: Ontario, 1984.

"Three major metaphors inform the narrative: the crap game, the compulsive freeway driving, and the abortion....her freeway driving implies randomness and directionlessness. Each trip is without aim or goal; no one has a relation to another. Initiated each morning at ten with the Corvette and a boiled egg, it is a ritual of eternal renewal, a debased version of the journey west, a parody of the effort to find new passages in a land beyond history." (Wilcox 72-73)

"[In her early novels] already many of the obsessional themes of Didion's work are in evidence: a pervasive sense of emotional weariness that surfaces in passionless couplings and the rote acting out of expected roles; a yearning after control and order by those who see their lives falling apart; a fatalistic realization that every particular fate is the fruit born of a particular history." (Kakutani 36)

"Play It As It Lays ironically supports conservative values by showing their utter absence in the characters' lives. We see a Hollywood society with no sense of history, of the links between then and now, and we watch this world disintegrate into suicide, abortion, sexual promiscuity, divorce, and neurotic lethargy: into nada....Maria and the other characters are cut loose from the bonds and values associated with the family, and by extension, from any sense of continuity with the past." (Brady 53)


Love Lines

"Sometime in the night she had moved into a realm of miseries peculiar to women, and she had nothing to say to Carter." (62)

"It had seemed this past month as if they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or endings, no point beyond itself." (68)

"They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino." (136)

"There were two trees in the town, two cottonwoods in the dry river bed, but one of them was dead." (188)

"Although the heat had not yet broken she began that week to sleep inside, between white sheets, hoping dimly that the white sheets would effect some charm, that she would wake in the morning and find them stained with blood. She did this in the same spirit that she had, a month before, thrown a full box of Tampax into the garbage: to be without Tampax was to insure bleeding, to sleep between white sheets was to guarantee staining." (6)


Student Comments from the End-of-Week Quiz

Please take a moment to rate the book: hated it, didn't care for it, okay, liked it, wonderful. Then write a comment.

"Liked it. I really enjoyed how 'on the surface' everything in the novel is, allowing us, the reader, to work through things, bring our own neuroses and skeletons to the table, as it were. I would suggest this for any semester."

"Wonderful. I really liked this novel and appreciated the writing style. It made me feel very strange--depressed or in a kind of haze when I finished it (which I did all in one sitting). Novels that can have an effeect on me like that are truly 'evocative,' perhaps is the right word? Anway, I'm sure I will read more of her work in the future."

"Liked it. Again this is a perspective I've never read from before. I truly enjoyed the style and the story. However, Maria was constantly frustrating in her lack of true emotion. The book was written so well though that you have to keep letting Maria get under your skin to understand it."

"Wonderful. I definitely liked this book a lot better [than Barthelme]. It was easier to understand and I thought it was very interesting."

"Liked it. Kind of a downer. Reinforced my 'jaded Hollywood type' stereotype I imagine. Liked the desert imagery = empty lives, nothing."

"Liked it. I'm glad to get back to easier reading."

"Liked it [check mark slightly on the "okay" side of the "liked it" rating]. It kept me very interested in what would happen next. I just got a little confused because of the non-chronological order--but it was no big deal."

"Liked it: most of the book. Wonderful: the ending."

"Liked it. Good book--a little diff. than normal novels (the way it's written)."

"Wonderful. I enjoyed this book a lot. As you said before it does have a very unique sense of style."

"Liked it. I was impressed how full, fleshed out, the story was, given the sparse quality of the style. It is easy to accuse minimalist writers of simplicity, but in the best cases this is very ill-founded. It must take a writer of great imagination & skill to create a story out of next to nothing."

"Liked it. Especially liked the 1 page or 1 paragraph chapters switching from 1st and 3rd person to build suspense."

"Okay. Haven't finished it all yet."

[There are 14 students in the class, but only 13 comments because one person was absent.]


For Further Reading

Run River, Didion's first novel, would be the next one I'd recommend. My favorite is her fourth, Democracy, but it's so elliptical and has so many references to historical events of the middle 70s that it might take a special kind of reader to really enjoy it. Many people love her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer. And for nonfiction, you can't go wrong with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a true classic of 60s and 70s pieces on everything from the counterculture to getting married in Las Vegas to John Wayne.

You might also want to read Didion's influential essay Why I Write (just click on the link).


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