In many respects Maria Wyeth is a typical Didion woman—weak, confused, eccentric, and morbidly nostalgic for a traditional society with strong and loving fathers. Her only present link to that world comes in intermittent encounters with her father’s old business partner, Benny Austin. None of the men with whom she is sexually involved is strong (they range from weak to brutal), and none could be described as either loving or paternal. Indeed, what Didion depicts is a kind of sexual conflict that pervades American literature. In Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler speaks of the schizophrenia that informs American perceptions of sexual identity. He argues that just as women are frequently viewed as either virgin or whore, Earth Mother or bitch goddess; so too are men often depicted in terms of two extremes—as being either gentleman or seducer, rational suitor or demon lover. Accordingly, the protagonist in each of Didion’s novels is torn between Apollonian and Dionysian lovers. In Play It as It Lays the author has given her single Apollonian figure three Dionysian rivals.
One of the most harrowing scenes in the novel occurs when Maria encounters an egocentric young actor named Johnny Waters at a typically decadent Hollywood party. Waters is the sort of individual who plays “Midnight Hour” repeatedly on the tape deck of his car, mistakenly calls Maria “Myra,” and suggests that she “do it with a Coke bottle” when she rejects his sexual advances. Later, when he does get his way...
(The entire section is 631 words.)