Play It as It Lays

Collected Works: Literature


Play It as It Lays

by Joan Didion

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A woman in dark glasses drives down the freeway. She cracks open a hardboiled egg, undressing the smooth white oval with the nails of one hand. Flecks of shell fly away into the breeze. She bites into the egg without adding seasoning, wary of the bloating effect of salt. Later, she stops at a gas station and sips warm cola, carefully returning the bottle to the rack. As soon as the sun has dried the sweat on the back of her blouse, she returns to the road, no destination in mind but ‘the hard white empty core of the world’.

Maria Wyeth, forename rhyming with pariah, is a one-time model who now spends her life behind the wheel. She likes the ‘audacious lane changes’, the ‘strategic shifts of gear’, the semblance of purpose that handling a moving vehicle brings. Her endpoint may be unclear, but Maria knows what she is escaping from: ennui and failure, feared like ‘contagious blights on glossy plants’. Her gambling father once claimed that she held ‘all the aces’. Now, she is no longer sure that she understands the point of the game.

Maria envies her screen persona, caught in a film directed by her estranged husband. She had a ‘knack for controlling her own destiny’ in front of the camera, but the uneven power dynamics of her relationship crossed the studio doors. Off-screen, she is pushed to illegally abort her baby of unclear paternity. Maria is left to observe her disintegration as though in filmic form. Her conversations have come to seem scripted and meaningless. Pivotal moments are nothing more than ‘obligatory scenes’, and life is just a ‘scenario’.

We travel at the speed of Maria’s Corvette, carried along by Joan Didion’s terse prose. Her writing acts as a lens, coolly recording from the passenger seat. Through this series of cinematic vignettes, the novel nods to the movies that its characters are busy making, setting up a game of suspense. Each succinct chapter resounds like the slap of a playing card on the table. Every reveal pulls the drama in a new direction. As we learn of stacked decks and jokers in the pack, we come to understand the hand that Maria has been dealt.

Words by Emma McKinlay

More to discover

You can read an excerpt from Play It as It Lays here. Susanna Rustin has written a profile of Joan Didion for The Guardian. Linda Kuehl has interviewed the author for The Paris Review, as have Hilton Als for The Paris Review, Emma Brockes for The Guardian, and Sheila Heti for The Believer Magazine.

 Alice Bolin has written about Didion's relationship with LA for The Believer Magazine, and Louis Menand has written about her radicalisation for The New Yorker. There are many articles on Didion's 'cult of cool', including those by Hermione Hoby for The Guardian, Meghan Daum for The Atlantic, Laura Marsh for the New Republic, and Lili Anolik for Vanity Fair.

Many of these posts follow Tracy Daugherty's 'The Last Love Song', the first full-length biography of Joan Didion, an excerpt of which can be read on Google Books.

Question of the day

Which works of literature about driving or road trips would you recommend, and why?
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Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. A tale of nature fighting back against human encroachment that pulls no punches on the gory details. (→)

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