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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays is a novella about an inscrutable, psychologically damaged actress dealing with (or more accurately, failing to deal with) a controlling, unfaithful husband and his amoral Hollywood friends. Separated from her mentally imbalanced daughter and seemingly incapable of standing up for herself, Maria Wyeth spends the entire book running away from conflicts, avoiding decision-making, and frustrating her supposed friends to no end. She’ll frustrate the reader as much before it’s all over.

Didion’s prose reads quickly, making an already short book feel even shorter. The book’s short chapters are frequently only a page or two in length. The book is practically taciturn, and it’s demonstrably clear that Didion has planned out exactly what she is going to tell the reader and when. The problem is that, even after finishing the novel, it’s not clear to this reader what was withheld and why. To get into specific examples would be to spoil the book’s already slight plot, but just as a for instance, I wish Didion had at least made it a little clearer just who was fucking whom. That would have been appreciated.

I actually enjoyed reading the novel as I was going along, but that was with the expectation of greater reward at the end. The prose here is fine, although a little too flighty and Zen for my tastes. Some of Maria’s conversations are particularly inscrutable, like Zen koans. A conversation she has with her friend BZ, just before the novel’s climax, is a presumably meaningful, but impossible to decipher discussion on the meaning of nothing.

Play It as It Lays is a frustrating read about a frustrating woman, and no amount of talent or brevity can redeem that combination.

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