Reading Log: Joan Didion’s ‘Play it as it Lays’

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Damn. This isn’t a very long book, but it really deserves you taking your time with it.

On the face of it, this seems like I book I would absolutely hate. My two least favorite places in the world are LA and Vegas, both of which compose the majority of the setting. This book concerns the problems of beautiful, connected, and wealthy white people. These should all be strikes against it, but Didion manages to make the book a powerful work, not despite them, but because of them. She also manages to do so without preachy condemnation (or even condemnation of any stripe).

Didion’s prose is minimal and full of unseen kinetic energy, clearly both a descendent and a refinement of Hemingway’s terse sentences pregnant with meaning. There are no good people in this book. If you’re one of those people obsessed with a main character being “relatable” then this may not be the book for you. The main character, Maria, is a seriously flawed human being, but any further description is painting with too broad a brush. Didion etches her out in fine cuts. While the characters inhabit a world I find distasteful and offensive, they are full of compelling interplay and drive relentlessly toward personally powerful conflict.

I can’t help but wonder where a novel like ‘Play it as it Lays’ fits into John Gardner’s ideas about “moral fiction”. While some might complain that these kind of novels glamorize the hedonism of the 1%, I don’t find any credibility in that argument. But neither is it a condemnation of that hedonism -not even an indirect one. It’s simply speaking very truthfully and very well about people who do bad things to the people around them.

Recommendation: Buy it and read it carefully. Go back and re-read the framing chapters at the beginning after you finish (the unnumbered chapters from the other points of view).

Play It As It Lays
by Joan Didion

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