(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The eighty-three brief scenes in this short novel at first appear to symbolize protagonist Maria Wyeth’s anxious sense of being a displaced, discontinuous person. However, their interrupted continuity also comes to represent the failure of the film industry to comprehend her complexity and her needs. Maria’s husband, Carter, never gets beyond his first image of her as an East Coast model; it is this superficial image that he prefers in the films which he makes of her. He is equally narrow in his attitude toward their daughter, Kate, born disabled. Carter has her institutionalized and attempts to prevent Maria from visiting her.

The fact that Maria’s own mother died horribly, alone in the desert and attacked by coyotes, has reinforced her maternal feelings. She identifies with her rejected child; both are marginal, considered outside the “in group” of the “beautiful people.” Starved for simple assurances that she is really alive and lovable, Maria has an affair with scriptwriter Les Goodwin. When she becomes pregnant, Carter declares that she must either have an abortion or never again see Kate. The fact that Les is already married drastically limits Maria’s options. Forced to choose between her two children, both wholly helpless, Maria agrees to the abortion; as a result of her guilt, however, she suffers recurring nightmares, including those of children being led to gas chambers.

Helene, who has always played the part of her closest friend, can provide neither understanding nor consolation. Instead she offers a partnership in a...

(The entire section is 645 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Play It as It Lays is Joan Didion’s sixth book and her fourth novel. Its theme is loss, confusion, and disconnection. The locales are Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Nevada desert, suitable settings for her cinema-influenced story of a star who is married to the producer who starred her in two small movies. Her only grasp on the game of life is the advice she received from her gambling father, who told her to play it as it lays.

Maria (pronounced Mar-EYE-ah) Wyeth is, readers learn on the first page, a woman who sees no sense in the random facts of existence. From childhood, her life had been precarious. Her father dreamed of making a tourist attraction out of their desert town of twenty-six inhabitants. The town disappeared entirely. Maria escaped to New York after high school to study acting, and there she met and married the director who featured her in two minor movies. They had a daughter, Kate, who was retarded and put in a hospital and whom Maria tries to visit more often than she is allowed.

Lying beside the pool of the elegant mental hospital where she is confined, Maria dreams only of going somewhere to live with Kate. She no longer drives endlessly on the Los Angeles freeways to keep herself sane. No movie parts come her way. Her husband is gone.

She had an abortion not long ago, a horror about which she still dreams. Her married lover did not leave his wife, and her husband insisted she get rid of the child,...

(The entire section is 430 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The first thing that one notices about Play It as It Lays is its strange physical appearance. Joan Didion has said that her technical intention in the novel was to write “a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams.” She accomplishes this goal by dividing her 214-page book into eighty-seven short chapters (some as short as a single paragraph). The fast, even violent, pace of the novel and the accumulation of many nearly blank pages instill a sense of vertigo in the reader.

Play It as It Lays tells the story of a young, third-rate film actress named Maria Wyeth. When Maria is introduced, she is remembering the events of the novel from the perspective of a mental institution. A native of Silver Wells, Nevada ( a former mining community that is now the site of a nuclear test range), Maria is separated from her obnoxiously cruel husband, Carter Lang, and from her brain-damaged daughter, Kate. (Although Maria feels genuine maternal love for Kate, the child’s condition makes it nearly impossible for that love to be demonstrated or returned.) When Maria once again becomes pregnant (probably not by her husband), Carter pressures her into having an abortion by threatening that he will otherwise prevent her from seeing the institutionalized Kate. Following her abortion, and other, lesser traumas, Maria finds herself in bed with Carter’s producer, BZ. The purpose, however, is not love but death. BZ (who is a homosexual and thus not erotically interested in Maria) swallows a handful of Seconal and dies in Maria’s comforting arms. Rather than follow his example, she keeps on living.

Unlike BZ, Maria is averse to examining life, philosophically or otherwise. (At the outset of the novel she says: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”) She tells the reader that she keeps on living because she hopes someday to get Kate back and go someplace where they can live simply. Maria will do some canning and be a mother to her child. This “hope” is encouraging, however, only if there is a chance of its being realized, and by...

(The entire section is 890 words.)