Play It as It Lays
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|Publisher||Farrar Straus & Giroux|
Play It as It Lays is a 1970 novel by the American writer Joan Didion. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The book was made into a 1972 movie starring Tuesday Weld as Maria and Anthony Perkins as BZ. Didion co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
The novel begins with an internal monologue by the 36-year-old Maria (Mar-eye-a) Wyeth, followed by short reminiscences of her friend Helene, and ex-husband, film director Carter Lang. The further narration is conducted from a third-person perspective in eighty-four chapters of terse, controlled and highly visual prose typical of Didion.
Maria's story begins as she is recovering from a mental breakdown in a psychiatric hospital in the Los Angeles area, but soon flashes back to her life before the hospital. A not-quite lurid view of life in Hollywood follows. Didion's late 1960s Los Angeles is a mix of grimness and glamour. Maria's journey oscillates between dizzying and domestic, as her acting career slows and her personal life collapses.
Maria moved to Los Angeles from New York City, by way of the small town of Silver Wells, Nevada. The daughter of a gambling father and a neurotic mother who bet on a mine and lost, Maria had originally moved to New York to become an actress. In New York, Maria works temporarily as a model and meets Ivan Costello, a psychological blackmailer who has no hesitation exploiting Maria for her money or her body.
In New York, Maria receives news of her mother's death in a car wreck, possibly a suicide. Her father dies soon after, leaving useless mineral rights to his business partner and friend Benny Austin. Maria withdraws from acting and modeling, splits up with Ivan, and eventually meets Carter and moves to Hollywood. Later, we find that she and Carter have a 4-year-old daughter Kate, who is under mental and physical “treatment” for some “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Maria truly loves Kate, as indicated by her tender descriptions, her frequent hospital visits, and her determination “to get her out.”
An inevitable divorce, and the ensuing social chaos bring Maria to indulge in self-destructive behavior. She plunges into long nights of compulsive driving, wandering Southern California's freeways, through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with actors and ex-lovers. After a series of disasters for Maria, infidelity among her friends adds further chaos to her life. Her friend BZ commits suicide and Maria is institutionalized. From her hospital, Maria turns her visitors away, and plans for a day she might see her daughter again.
The main character
Maria’s problem seems to be that, apart from her daughter, she lacks a purpose in life. She admires strong personalities, including her father (who “always had a lot of plans”), an unyielding woman she played in the film Angel Beach, and the resolute wife of an Italian industrialist she reads about in Vogue magazine. She is submissive with men, a pattern her agent calls “very self-destructive.”
Symbols and motifs
Rattlesnakes appear throughout the book, mostly denoting personalized danger and the threat of male predators. In an introductory monologue, Maria wonders why a coral snake needs “two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive, while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none.” Maria's mother makes her read the “rattlesnake bite” entry in the "American Red Cross Handbook." Snakes, “stretched on the warm asphalt” roads of Nevada, figure in Maria’s fantasies about car accidents, and inflict deadly bites upon those who venture out. Maria tells Carter a story about a man who wanted to talk to God and was later found dead, “bitten by a rattlesnake.” “[T]he rattlesnake in the playpen” and “on the plate” are also significant metaphors.
In world religions, the snake appears as a Biblical tempter, an agent in ritual suicides, an author of stratagems, and the symbol of fertility in general and male sexuality in particular. In "The Philadelphia Journal", Benjamin Franklin suggested the female rattlesnake as a symbol of America: “The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies.”
In the film version of Didion's book, a Los Angeles highway is seen in an aerial view as a snake.
Maria watches a hummingbird while in the psychiatric ward. It suggests real life and tangible reality, in contrast to the superficial and empty life in Hollywood. Earlier, Maria has worried that “glossy plants” in her agent’s office are taking away her oxygen, and a guest at BZ’s party complains of being given an “artificial lemon.”
Wyeth eats eggs while driving on the freeway. Talking with her agent, she asks him if he’s “playing with a Fabergé Easter egg.” Conventionally, eggs are signs of fertility—a mocking reminder of Maria’s abortion.
Freeway and Road Signs
Initially, Maria’s road obsession is related to the loss or lack of communication between the characters. While a freeway is “a way of getting somewhere,” Maria has nowhere to go.
In the desert, Maria has trouble following road signs. She chafes at the gravity (in both senses) of earthbound secondary roads, which don’t allow her the carefree flight of a freeway (though her travels upon them are equally aimless).
Maria’s father is an addicted gambler. He loses a house in Reno in a private wager, and puts money in uncertain business deals. He teaches Maria to assess her chances in the game of craps, which he compares to life. Though he never wins, Maria claims to have inherited his optimism and tenacity.
Maria often calls herself a “player,” not an "actress," and mostly in the context of the roles society imposes on her. BZ constantly accuses her of “playing,” and forces Helene to “play-or-pay,” though his nihilism brings him to suicide. Hollywood is a place where the thin line between real-world actions and fictional games is blurred.
After the abortion, Maria suffers from recurring nightmares and ghastly visions featuring dead fetuses, dying children, severed body parts and plumbing.
Air conditioners appear regularly in this desert world, even in the Encino room where Maria undergoes abortion. They suggest the suffocating, artificial human atmosphere that surrounds her. Carter is said to dislike air conditioners.
Maria dreams of driving “into the hard white empty core of the world.” Before terminating her pregnancy, she sleeps between “immaculate” white sheets in “white crepe pajamas,” hoping to induce a miscarriage. A recurring dream figure is the “man in white duck pants” from her abortion.
Whiteness prefigures nothingness and obliteration of memory. She speaks of her mind as a “blank tape,” merely recording impressions and experiences. And she hopes 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."
An aggressive madwoman in a supermarket attempts to engage Maria, accusing her of inattentiveness. After marrying Carter, she receives letters from “mad people.” Her daughter is having mental problems, and she herself is admitted to a neuropsychiatric ward. In Didion’s world, normality and cause-effect notions are conventions established by an unspecified “them.”
Maria’s mother croons to herself the lyrics of the hit single by Jo Stafford, "You Belong to Me". Maria replays in her head lines from 1969’s "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield and "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat & Tears.
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- Play It As It Lays (1972)
- The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III: London, 1757 - 1775 - The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America
- Burke, Ted (2005-11-02). "Brett Easton Ellis". Like It or Not. Retrieved 30 December 2008.