The Short Version: Maria Wyeth recounts the bleakness of her life while recuperating from a mental breakdown – revealing the dark underbelly of the Hollywood scene in the 1970s and, perhaps, of the human psyche itself.
The Review: I don’t remember who it was or where I read it, but I recall a quote about reading Play It as It Lays while leaving Los Angeles and never looking back that made me want to read this book either in LA or shortly after visiting. I picked up my copy at Skylight, one of the eminent LA bookshops, and I was all set to read it right away… but I waited. I waited until almost the end of my trip, in fact; by the time I started, over a week had passed since I’d left LA. I’m not sure if that distance mattered, but it felt somehow noteworthy.
My experiences of LA have been, up to this summer, entirely mediated through literature and film and music. It’s Bret Easton Ellis who delivered, for me, the most formative representation of the city with Less Than Zero – but movies like Mulholland Drive and even Iron Man or songs like “Goodnight Hollywood Blvd.” have created a representation of a city that doesn’t quite actually exist. Or if it does, it’s not the city you get to see when visiting. Play It as It Lays enters that canon, that grouping of stories that create an idea of a place that only exists for those who’ve lived there – not the place you see when you’ve got 48 hours.
Alright, enough dilly-dallying around talking about my own Los Angeles experience. Let’s to the book. And what a book it is.
Bret Easton Ellis is actually a great landmark to navigate by, in regards to the experience of this novel – but where Ellis’ writing always captured a kind of manufactured nihilism, a numbness that was in itself the goal purely because it seemed ‘cool’, Didion is delivering the real thing. It’s the difference between Stevia and real sugar, between processed meats and a freshly made burger, between taking cough syrup and taking Valium. This novel presents a bleakness of soul that would later come to be much imitated but that’s never quite been recaptured, at least in my experience. All this is to say: this book hit me with a potency that I almost wasn’t prepared for.
We begin with some first person narration, establishing some – but not all – of the main characters at some point in the indeterminate, very late 1960s/early 1970s present. Maria, our main character, is introduced with one of the most indelible lines I’ve ever encountered: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Right away, ten words in, we know so much about this woman. And she is frightening. She’s intelligent. And she might have a touch of evil about her. We’re then given moments of first person narration from Helene and Carter – and we understand that Maria is somewhere (mental institution? hospital? rest home?) and that someone called BZ has died. There’s a bit of mystery surrounding the whole thing, the hint of an inevitable conclusion looming over the horizon as we enter the novel’s main timestream, which throws us back in time a little bit – but that also, as it continues, has a curiously unstructured sense of time, a quietly daring playing-with-form that takes the reader a moment to fully come to grips with.
But even as the novel’s structure mirrors the potentially untrustworthy nature of memory in recounting a presumably straightforward narrative, it also delivers a picture of a mind under duress. Didion never looks away, either, forcing the reader to experience these things and make a choice: to either anesthetize themselves so that they can power through or to be almost overwhelmed by the bleakness on display. The sequence where Maria goes to get an abortion is, without much in the way of gore or descriptive uckiness, one of the most harrowing things I think I’ve ever read. The choice to close yourself off, as a reader seems to be the easier one – except that, in so doing, you come closer to a true approximation of exactly how Maria is going through life. As we attempt to distance ourselves from the potency of the narrative, we paradoxically get closer to it.
Speaking of such paradoxes, the other obvious child of Didion’s novel is David Lynch. Didion’s novel does remain strictly realistic but there are echoes of Lynch’s “dream logic” in the way Maria allows the narrative to ebb and flow – and his bleak depictions of the absurdities of particularly Los Angeles feel like they have their beginnings (or at least a beginning) here, in Didion’s unsparing prose. The way images stick and linger, for example, and the way that they almost remain there after you’ve kept reading. This is helped by the short chapters, many of which read like short scenes that then hop to the next one without traditional connective tissue; it’s obvious that Didion also wrote screenplays and scripts, as this novel is not just set in Hollywood but feels distinctly like a product of that style of narrative construction.
But what of this unsparing bleakness? Of Maria’s depression, of the unstinting numbness that would later be doubled-down on by Patrick Bateman and Clay – and that, just a few years earlier, had been explored by Esther Greenwood (although Plath’s novel didn’t see U.S. publication until a year or so after this one, interestingly enough)? This is a hard novel to stomach, especially for those who’ve never experienced clinical depression or the low-level pall it can cast over your entire life. But such knowledge is not required to… enjoy is perhaps not the right word, although nearly every single line is exquisite with as much said as not said. But maybe it is the right word, for I did enjoy this novel. Or, well, I found meaning and potency in it. Perhaps the difference is an important one – both for novels and for life.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Yes, it is as unsparing and bleak as you’ve heard. But it’s a nearly perfect novel, too. Didion’s prose is like a dream, Hemingway-esque in its brevity but full of a more honest look at the frailty of humanity. There wouldn’t be David Lynch or Bret Easton Ellis without Didion – or, perhaps, there would be; Los Angeles might just be that kind of city. But regardless, Maria is one of the most potent narrators I’ve ever encountered and as relentless as this novel might be in approaching its inevitably dark conclusion… damned if it isn’t perfectly gripping, too.