Narrated in a harried, disintegrating, sometimes nearly disembodied voice, Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays (1972) traces the downward course of a woman as she undergoes divorce, abortion, her dependency on alcohol, drugs, and sex, mental and emotional exhaustion, her acting career’s decline, anxiety over her young daughter’s disability. The narrative develops through a series of short chapters and monologues—it begins with a few chapters narrated from others’ points of view, but these soon give over to the dominant form of the novel).
The main character is Maria—the “I” is pronounced as in “eye,” and this is no coincidence. Maria is a form of the name of Mary the mother of Christ, yet in the novel what at first passes for inexperience and fragile innocence gives way to deepening corruption and decay. I suspect the novel was written at a time when the world could still shock Didion—especially the world of Hollywood and Los Angeles where she spent much time working with her husband on various screenwriting projects. Maria’s supposed fragility, her hypersensitivity to the world and events around her, may cause us to wonder how closely she is based on Didion, who drove a yellow Corvette as Maria does in the novel. Maria speaks in the same voice so familiar from Didion’s early essays. She’s obsessed with her dead parents, as Didion often seems to be in her essays. But Didion nearly always controls her voice, while Maria can control nothing. Didion’s essay voice is highly literate, intelligent, and observant—Maria seems to read little more than old issues of Vogue (for which Didion worked early in her career). Her intellect is not particularly noticeable.
Maria’s problem, her psychological instability, her excessive fragility, must certainly predate the events in the novel. She’s hardly capable of controlling her behavior, of changing the course she finds herself on. She just plummets and plummets, and at some point more than midway through the novel I found myself wanting her to get it over with. This may be the main flaw in a novel that is otherwise deeply upsetting and compelling—her desire to destroy herself, her resistance to any form of friendship or help or love (all of these have betrayed her, or she has betrayed them). One ceases to care about individuals so enthralled by the nothing.
The account of Maria's illegal abortion is grim—illegal because it was written before Roe v. Wade.