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Play It As It Lays: A Novel

3.8 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374521714
ISBN-10: 0374521719
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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.
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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: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,444,184 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J C E Hitchcock on February 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
"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
5 Comments 56 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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