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Using Style to Convey Meaning in Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays”
Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion, is a gut-wrenching story about numbness and despair. In it, an actress wanders from scene to scene, getting no emotional sustenance from any interaction with anybody she meets, while craving some kind of connection or meaning and not finding it, until she becomes miserable, and then proceeds beyond misery, until she stops being aware of her feelings and seems to feel nothing whatsoever.
It is not a happy novel. I would even say that there is a certain type of person who must not read this novel because if they do, it will put dark thoughts in their heads. However, if you are not that sort of person, or wish to disregard this warning, the novel is special. But the payoff, primarily, is an experience of being Maria, and of understanding her a bit, and that isn’t pleasant.
I almost binged it, but then I realized that I would run out of book. So, I ordered another Didion book and once it was in the mail, it felt safe to finish this one.
What Was Most Memorable?
DE-EMPHASIS OF PLOT
The novel has a plot of sorts, but it certainly isn’t plot-driven. You can’t call something plot-driven when you can omit 99% of the book and keep the plot fully intact. Instead of plot, the book is concerned with character, setting, and with using repetition and style to convey directly, almost via pointing, what it is like to be Maria.
DISCONNECTION AND NUMBNESS
"I'm giving this one more chance," Carter said when he saw her sitting by the window. "Tell me what you want."
"I want to help you. Tell me what you feel."
She looked at the hand he held out to her. "Nothing," she said.
"You say that again and I swear to Christ—"
She shrugged. He left the motel.
After finishing university, while recovering from a concussion, I had convinced myself that I had to work and that it didn’t matter how bad I felt and that nobody would help me. After enough years spent living like this, trying to work despite the pain, nausea, fatigue, and sadness, I stopped being able to notice the emotions I was feeling. I often felt nothing, but I might act out suddenly, and I didn't understand why I was acting out. I wasn’t aware of any emotions. There was no internal dialogue. It was too deeply suppressed.
When Maria, in this story, feels and wants ‘nothing,’ I think that something similar is going on. It isn’t that she feels nothing—it’s that she can’t experience her emotions due to how she learned to cope. That’s why she can feel nothing, while at the same time spending so much time crying and not knowing why.
Maria’s numbness isn’t something that you can convey using plot or description. You have to convey it directly, as I said, almost via pointing.
The tone is heavy, blank, numb, repetitive, and unrelenting. Long, wandering paragraphs tell us how endless and horrific it all is, but we are given no time to stop and experience the horror because the narration does not address feelings. Maria’s feelings, in general, are (almost?) never described—the reader is as unaware of them as she is, and this is so strongly adhered to that often Maria is crying, and the reader has no idea until another character in the room comments on it.
To convey how her life feels like a series of disconnected scenes, the book is broken down into many chapters, frequently a single page each.
If this sounds familiar, by the way, it may be because you read my notes about Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Joan Didion, and Play It as It Lays in particular, was a major inspiration of his, and Less Than Zero is clearly modelled heavily after this novel. He learned to write by studying this book.
A NOTE ON VOICE
Structurally, we begin with some first person accounts that are hard to make sense out of; then we rewind to before those first person accounts and adopt a third-person perspective that closely follows Maria. There is an occasional present tense first person interlude, so we can get into Maria’s head, and these are most common near the end. It has to switch to third person because Maria would not tell this story in this way (as seen in the opening chapter). This way, Didion can be strictly true to her voice.
Foreshadowing: we know from the beginning that Maria is responsible, in some way, for B.Z.’s death at some point in the story. We don’t know why. Is it via carelessness? Was it accidental? A murder? Either way, we know as the book draws to a close that a death is coming. This adds some dread and dramatic tension as we approach the end of the novel. Innocent passages take on new meaning because of this little trick.
Compare this to Knolls The Favorite Sister, where the death plot doesn’t work nearly as well. What is the difference? Play It As It Lays doesn’t try to create the sense we’re reading a thriller or mystery. It doesn’t dramatize it so much. The event at the end makes sense and contributes to the rest of the story. I think death in The Favorite Sister doesn’t contribute as much to the overall effect of the novel, and is maybe at odds with it.
The ending is absolutely (——), but I can’t talk about it without spoiling it. Same with a few other moments I wish I could discuss…
In this edition, the book is light, and the margins are huge. This made it really comfortable to read. This is in my notes because I want to remember it if I ever self-publish something. I want my book to be physically pleasant to handle and read.
Didion and her husband were apparently among the highest-paid screenwriters of their time. I wonder what they wrote.
The book is probably a condemnation of the culture of the place and time, but I didn’t find this idea stood out. Other commentators do, however. Maybe they are projecting because they live in the area and see her characters as common types. Many people are obsessed with the history of Hollywood, and the narrative of books like these over the years, the way it paints that period in all its decadence and immorality—but also glamour—and I don’t really get it.
Has anybody read her other novels? Everyone says they don’t live up to this one, and that its her non-fiction I should be looking at. But how can the non-fiction live up to this novel?
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