When Play It as It Lays was first published, John Leonard wrote: “There hasn’t been another writer of Joan Didion’s quality since Nathanael West.” This comparison is appropriate for several reasons. First, Play It as It Lays is a classic Hollywood novel in the tradition of West’s The Day of the Locust (1939). The introduction of sound into motion pictures in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s created a need for dialogue that lured many talented writers to the West Coast. Several (like West) went on to write bitter, satiric novels about the decadence and meretriciousness of Tinsel Town. Play It as It Lays seems to be part of that tradition.
To categorize Play It as It Lays as merely another anti-Hollywood novel, however, is somehow inadequate. The action of the novel occurs less in Southern California than in an existential void (the white space off the page). Something more fundamental than Hollywood is the cause of BZ’s despair and Maria’s catatonic resignation. (Indeed, in several of her essays Didion has ridiculed writers who propagate the image of “Hollywood the Destroyer.”) At least in this one novel, Didion’s pessimism surpasses both the defiant humanism of Camus and the apocalyptic cynicism of West. Maria Wyeth is too passive a character to choose the ritualistic death of suicide or (like West’s characters) go berserk at a Hollywood riot. She has been reduced to a state of moral and spiritual paralysis, in which even death seems a sentimental cop-out. Going beyond the comparison to West, Leonard finds an even more suggestive parallel when he notes that Didion’s vision in Play It as It Lays is “as bleak and precise as Eliot’s in The Waste Land.”