She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.


The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “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”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.



Filed under California, Didion, Joan

21 responses to “She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

  1. Great review and, like you say, it suggests so much by way of symbols and anomic hints but seems to mock the very idea of any core message. I think Didion is precisely the same across all her non-fiction as well: she records moods and ambiguities and the creeping dread of overt self-surveillance and a kind of clairvoyant malaise: insight which always reaches another too-acute, circuitous dead-end (although Didion does this better than almost anyone else. And the dialogue is virtually peerless).

    I’d certainly put the novel in my favourite 20. After this reminder I’m tempted to read it for the umpteenth time.

  2. I have another Didion sitting here waiting to be read first, but if I like it, then I’ll try this. I have a soft spot for stories set in mental asylums/institutions.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve read a lot of Didion’s non-fiction which I love – her detached voice seems to work well there, but I’ve not yet ventured into this one. Heavy stuff, I think!

  4. jihearn

    Wonderful book – I read it last year and thoroughly enjoyed it! Haunting , darkly comical and sad

  5. I have a copy of this but plan to start with Didion’s Run River early next year (and I might have to work up to Play rather than diving in at the deep end). I can see why you picked that final quote as it conveys a real sense of emptiness and dislocation.

    I don’t know much about it, but there’s a film version of Play with Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Didion wrote the screenplay so it might be worth a look.

  6. I read ‘Play It as It Lays’ a long time ago. I didn’t get much out of it then. Maybe it’s time for a re-read.

  7. Thanks Lee. Yes, I was a bit nervous about reviewing this one and wasn’t sure why, but I think that’s the nub of it. The book subverts itself.

    It’s superbly well written.

    Guy, it opens in an institution but it’s not set in one. We immediately flashback to the events which led to that setting, rather than spending time in that setting. Which one do you have out of interest?

    jihearn, haunting is a good word. As I said above, my lasting image of it doesn’t actually occur in the book, but it leaves images, imprints.

    Jacqui, it’s short so it’s not as deep end-y as all that and it’s a very fast read. Dense though.

    Dislocation, I wish I’d thought of that word when writing the review. It’s perfect. That quote does capture that, glad you thought so.

    Anokatony, re-read! And if you do, let me know your thoughts. As the contemporary review shows, not everyone agrees that this is a great novel, so if you still feel it isn’t you won’t be a lone voice at least.

  8. Fascinating. It seems more difficult to read than Run River but I can see similarities between Maria and the female characters in Run River.

    I’ll read it along with Jacqui in April. I wonder what I’ll think about it, about Maria. Reading your review, I feel a bit ill-at-ease with what you describe and it brings back emotions I felt when I read Annie Proulx.

  9. Alastair Savage

    It sounds a bit like The Day of the Locust in showing the darkness and despair in the movie business.
    I’m intrigued by what seems to be the overwhelmingly negative symbolism of snakes in the novel. To the ancient Greeks, the snake was sometimes a positive symbol due to its ability to achieve rebirth through the shedding of its skin. Hence its presence on chemists’ signs to this day. Could this also have been on Didion’s mind?

  10. I’d heard of Day of the Locust, but only that. Having now looked it up I’ll pick up a copy, I can see some connections.

    This though while it contains a critique of Hollywood to me was more personal, almost a novel about depression and alienation placed in a profoundly artificial environment.

    The snake is a lot of things isn’t it? It’s also often a symbol of wisdom, but here it’s pretty negative. I get no sense of rebirth for Maria, simply continuance. That said, if you read it I’d be interested in your thoughts on the symbolism (there’s lots of it).

  11. Alastair Savage

    >>ahem<< Actually I did a post on The Day of the Locust a couple of years ago, which was on Freshly pressed. You can check it out here: It definitely seems to share something with this on by Joan Didion.

  12. Brilliant, I’ll read it when I get back from a short trip I’m taking. Thanks.

  13. leroyhunter

    I’m starting to feel like Didion could become part of my personal canon. I would expect that you would also love Renata Adler, Max. Speedboat is quite something, I was as impressed with (for slightly different reasons) as I was with this.

  14. Jacqui reviewed the Adler and it’s really caught my attention. It’s one I hope to read in the not too distant future (though in fairness there are more books I want to read in the not too distant future than there is not too distant future in which to read them).

  15. Great review Max, but it is one of the most depressing books I’ve read. Only one I’ve read of hers and will rectify that soon.

    Isn’t Day of the Locust the one with Homer Simpson in? (Well, a character named after him of course)

  16. Yes, it is a tad on the bleak side. I’ve read her reportage work Miami, which is excellent, otherwise just this.

    I suspect you’re right re Homer.

  17. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

  18. I’ve read it now and I share your views and impressions about the book. Brilliant review of a disturbing book full of vivid images.

    Billet in a couple of weeks when Jacqui is ready.

  19. Great, I’ll definitely look forward to your thoughts.

  20. Pingback: Maria, rider on the storm | Book Around The Corner

  21. Pingback: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion | JacquiWine's Journal

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