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Play It As It Lays: A Novel [Paperback]

by Joan Didion
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 1, 1990 0374521719 978-0374521714
A dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation. Joan Didion chose Hollywood to serve as her microcosm of contemporary society and exposed a culture characterized by emptiness and ennui.

Maria Wyeth is an emotional drifter who has become almost anesthetized against pain and pleasure. She finds herself, in her early thirties, radically divorced from husband, lovers, friends, her own past and her own future. Actress, daughter, wife, mother, woman: she has played each role to the sound of one hand clapping.

Play It As It Lays is set in a place beyond good and evil, literally in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and the barren wastes of the Mojave, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul. Two decades after its original publication, it remains a profoundly disturbing novel.

Editorial Reviews


"There hasn't been another American writer of Joan Didion's quality since Nathanel West . . . A terrifying book."--John Leonard, The New York Times

"Simple, restrained, intelligent, well-structured, witty, irresistibly relentless, forthright in diction, and untainted by the sensational, Play It As It Lays is a book of outstanding literary quality."--Library Journal

"[A] scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust."--J. R. Frakes, Book World

About the Author

Joan Didion is the author of five novels and six works of nonfiction: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Miami, Salvador, After Henry, and Political Fictions. She lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 214 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374521719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374521714
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #982,695 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction. Joan Didion's Where I Was From, Political Fictions, The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Miami, Democracy, Salvador, A Book of Common Prayer, and Run River are available in Vintage paperback.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
76 of 83 people found the following review helpful
What would life be like if it was meaningless, if the people we associated with were plastic? not real? pretentious? What if our life was just a hopeless void with loose morals, drugs, hollow sayings and beliefs? What if we just played the empty game of life as it was laid down for us? That is the main theme in Joan Didion's classic book that takes the reader into the life of Maria Wyeth, actress, mother, daughter, divorced wife, a woman who has grown tired and desensitized to the fakeness and pain caused by the Hollywood and Las Vegas establishment.It is a life filled to the brim with movie premiers, booze, pills, suicide, casual, empty sex, abortions and nothing else. It is a world of plastic surgery and beautiful people, of Let's do lunch and venomous gossip. The sneering, caustic tone of Didion's voice would want to make anybody who lived the lives of the novel's characters put a gun to their head and end it all. The language is stinging, fast-paced, lean, anti-Hollywood. Pure Didion!
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Deserts of Ennui February 1, 2003
There is, wrote Charles Baudelaire, a vice which is uglier, more wicked and filthier than any other, a vice which he called "L'Ennui". This is a stronger term than the mere "boredom" which is its literal meaning, because the word also implies a state of indifference and moral and spiritual deadness. It is a state of mind frequently invoked in Baudelaire's poetry, and one which is also at the centre of Joan Didion's novel.
The central character is Maria Wyeth, a Hollywood actress in her early thirties. Fate has, in many ways, been unkind to her- her mother died in a car crash, her career is in trouble, her marriage to an uncaring husband is also failing and she has a mentally-handicapped daughter. Maria reacts by retreating into the sterile world occupied by most of the novel's other characters, one of casual and promiscuous sex, drink, drugs and "Ennui", both in its literal and its extended Baudelairean senses.
Told in a series of very short vignettes, the novel traces the progress of the disintegration of Maria's life. She is bullied into an abortion by her husband. (It is interesting that a novel by a woman writer treats abortion not as a woman's right but as another weapon of male dominance). Her marriage ends in divorce. In the final scene her moral nihilism means that she deliberately fails to prevent the suicide of a friend.
Much of the book is set in the deserts of southern California and Nevada, and Maria spends much of her time driving on long but aimless car journeys through this landscape. The imagery of the desert is clearly used to suggest the aridity of the spiritual world in which the characters live, and Maria's meaningless journeys are a symbol of her inability to escape this world.
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50 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Out there where nothing is January 16, 2002
"Play It As It Lays" takes us to the rarified world of Hollywood and La-la Land, where life is fast, flat, and apparently as empty as the souls of some of its inhabitants. At the center of the book is Maria Wyeth, who at 31 is on the far side of the big 3-0 dividing line; orphaned when her parents are killed in a car crash, divorced from her film-director husband, the mother of a handicapped, institutionalized child, a sometime model and actress, who has become desensitized and remote from the pain of others to hide her own interior pain.

Maria has truly been "out there where nothing is" but instead of rejecting it, she has come to feel at home in it. The final nail in the coffin of her ability to feel is the abortion her estranged husband forces her to have to get rid of the child of her married lover; if she refuses, he will take custody of their own daughter. From that point, her life spirals downward into a haze of drugs, booze and casual, meaningless sex; communication with others is reduced to an interchange of one-liners; we wonder if this woman can feel anything for anyone any more. When Maria is able to calmly watch the husband of her supposed best friend destroy himself without lifting a finger to try to help him, we wonder is it because she is too lazy to call for help, or too detached to care.

Joan Didion's prose is as spare and as stark as the inner life of the character she writes about, and in simple but telling phrases she is able to convey to the reader all the pain and emptiness, and finally the viciousness, that passes for Maria's life. Maria will wallow in her own anomie and to hell with anyone who gets burned by contact with her. Is this payback? Maybe. Joan Didion lets us see Maria and her life in all its revolting nothingness, and makes us want to thank God it isn't ours.

Judy Lind
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly realized May 23, 2005
Those who dislike this novel do so because it was successful at making them feel acutely the distress, anxiety, alienation, and detachment of the world presented. The writing is brillant: deep, thoughtful, many layered, and integrated. Still, this prose is bathed in acid and the superficial has been burned away: nothing is wasted other than the lives of the protagonists. She is among the most gifted and professional writers in the U.S.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a life gone wrong July 10, 2000
By Krista
Didion is a definite "show not tell" author. She presents a series of fragmented snapshots, strings them together, then expects the reader to do much of the interpretation. The result: a grim, relentless, despairing mosiac of a life in the process of falling apart.
I have admired Didion's non-fiction ("White Album," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "After Henry") for her adroit use of language: her skill in putting together words that pack in a maximum amount of powerful imagery, the way her phrases implant themselves in my thoughts and remain there.
While "Play It As It Lays" demonstrates some of that same skill with language that is evident in Didion's journalistic work, I doubt that the story of Maria will cling to me like the stories of people from Didion's essays: the abandoned child on the highway, clinging to the cyclone fence, the neglected flower child rocking on a rocking horse.
A day after I read "Play It As It Lays," I wondered if I had dreamed it. Not so for Didion's non-fiction. In that case, I wondered if I had lived it.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Barren lives
Play It As It Lays is a bitter story of the emptiness and artificiality of contemporary life. It is set in California in the late 1960s. Read more
Published 16 days ago by Steven Davis
5.0 out of 5 stars Sparse excellence
I am a fan of sparse prose, and no one does that better than Joan Didion. This has always been my favorite work by her, although I love her nonfiction as well. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Go
1.0 out of 5 stars Joan Did not write a readable novel
In reading previous reviews, there is a 50-50 split on reviews. You either love it or you hate it. Consider me in the latter. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Barbara K
5.0 out of 5 stars Tuesday Weld....
worth it just for Tuesday Weld... and Tony Perkins, of course. A bare bones movie - stark; very close to the book.
Published 6 months ago by tom thompson
5.0 out of 5 stars simple...elegant...perfection
There really isn't much else I can say about this book. I read it senior year of college in Poughkeepsie, NY and knew immediately where I wanted to live post-graduation. Read more
Published 7 months ago by compson
5.0 out of 5 stars Feels brand new
I ordered this book used. When it arrived, it looked brand new. I have only had it a few weeks, and I'm sad to say I have definitely gotten use out of it and it is no longer so... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jennifer Rivera
1.0 out of 5 stars Depressing.........
Very dark and depressing book. A moody book, I can read and appreciate. However, this left a heavy cloud of displeasure for the writing style and subject. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jeneal Johns
5.0 out of 5 stars Good reading
I saw on Pinterest that this was a good read and came straight to you to get it. I can't wait to get started.
Published 7 months ago by Kathleen Bault
5.0 out of 5 stars Art from Easy Targets
Joan Didion's shoots at fish in a barrel in 1970's "Play It As It Lays": the superficiality, materialism, risky behavior, narcissism and spiritual emptiness--the ennui--of people... Read more
Published 8 months ago by MarlowesMom
3.0 out of 5 stars Grim Portrait of a Vanished World
Although beautifully written, this 1970 novels seems dated in two important ways, one positive, one negative. Read more
Published 9 months ago by A Customer
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