Joan Didion invites us into late 1960s Hollywood in her novel Play It as It Lays. Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah) Wyeth is a struggling actress, whose fledgling career is in a stall. Although she’s married to a connected and somewhat powerful man, Carter Lang, they’re unhappy together. And their young daughter is institutionalized, a decision more common in those times. Maria just doesn’t have much in life to be happy about. And Didion sinks right into the melancholic, Mad Men vibe.
This is a long-ago backlist bump, published in 1970. But I loved Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is also tremendously sad. I wasn’t surprised that Maria tells it like it is, at least in her mind. She’s trying to keep her shit together, and doing a pretty miserable job of it. Of course, per the time and place, her strategies are dramatic amounts of substance abuse and arguing with everyone.
Didion keeps the book short, which helps manage the bleakness. And her writing style is so sparse and elegiac that anything longer would be extraneous.
It’s never easy to read about a main character with mental health issues. This book is no exception. But Didion combines aspects of commiseration with plot elements that unfurl with slow deliberation. As hard as Maria was to stomach, I wanted to understand those hidden plot elements, so I persisted.
Didion is a master of words.
“As if in trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing.”
Moments like this struck me as relevant to how quarantine feels. And as a precursor of longtime hit TV shows “about nothing,” like Seinfeld. Still at least Jerry, Elaine and the gang laughed sometimes. Maria and Didion aren’t nearly as enjoyable to spend time with.
Still, I will keep reading Didion for the beauty in her prose. I recommend this for a reality check if you’re aching to slip into a charmed life.
Pair with Pickle’s Progress by Marcia Butler, which also combines dysfunction and dissatisfaction, albeit the East Coast version. Or if you’d like a more energetic picture of Los Angeles, try Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.