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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

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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 end of the novel, one understands that Maria’s dream is, in fact, hopeless. Viewed in this light, the closing lines of Play It as It Lays seem ironic indeed. Maria says: “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what nothing’ means and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.”

Maria may actually believe that she is living for Kate. The truth, however, as Didion’s narrative perspective forces the reader to see it, is that Maria continues to live because she does not even share BZ’s faith that freedom comes with death. Albert Camus once said that suicide was the only truly serious philosophical problem, because it comes down to judging whether life is worth living. BZ has answered the question in the negative. Maria, however, believes that there are no serious philosophical problems.

Although the novel begins with first-person accounts by Maria and two other characters (Carter and BZ’s wife, Helene) and ends with a final word from Maria, the bulk of the story is told from a third-person-limited point of view. At its best, this technique allows Didion to move back and forth between a close identification with Maria and an ironic distance from her. Alfred Kazin has argued, however, that when her control becomes too obvious, Didion turns herself into a kind of literary director-auteur.

Upon first reading Play It as It Lays, one is likely to be struck by its spare, bleak, nihilistic tone. What becomes evident with successive readings, however, is the crucial function that irony and humor serve in this novel. One of the most hideously black comic scenes in Play It as It Lays, the contact between Maria and the man who is to take her to an abortionist, is also one of the most memorable in contemporary fiction. Maria meets her contact, a moral zombie in white duck pants, under the big red “T” at the local Thriftimart. To pass the time he hums “I Get a Kick Out of You” and begins to make inane small talk. Speaking of the neighborhood through which they are passing, he says: “Nice homes here. Nice for kids.” He then asks Maria whether she gets good mileage on her car and proceeds to compare the merits of his Cadillac with those of a Camaro that he is contemplating buying: “Maybe that sounds like a step down, a Cad to a Camaro, but I’ve got my eye on this particular Camaro, exact model of the pace car in the Indianapolis 500.”

Because Maria has strong maternal instincts, her abortion is the cause of much guilt and anxiety. It can also be seen as a symbol of the breakdown of the family and of traditional standards of morality. Yet what makes the episode of the abortion unforgettably grotesque is the image of that cretin in white duck pants babbling about the mileage that Maria gets on her car. Throughout Play It as It Lays, Didion employs just such comic touches to undercut the sentimental, self-pitying nihilism inherent in Maria’s story.