Saturday, August 31, 2019

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This is a tough read. In terse well written prose, Didion lays out the story of a woman going through some incredibly traumatic things. It begins with first person accounts of three of the main players, in which it is revealed that Maria, an actress and the main point of view character in the rest of the book, is grieving her daughter who was in some sort of an accident and is in a semi-vegetative state in hospital, is depressed verging on nihilist, and her husband believes her to have killed the husband of one of the other characters.

Maria (Mar-eye-a) is an actress married to a fairly prominent director. The action mostly takes place in LA and Las Vegas before the death of the character Maria’s husband thinks she killed. The book gets progressively more depressed. It feels like a repudiation of the hope of the liberal 60’s. I like bleak books. Existentialism appeals to me. I try not to cross over into nihilism. The line between the two to me in literature lies in the ability of the characters to create meaning rather than just enduring. Maria is decidedly the latter. I guess there is a little hope in that ability to endure, to play it as it lays to use the title and central metaphor of the book. Still it is a tough read.

That is not to say that I think the book is bad. The guy who wrote the introduction made a big deal about how people to whom he’s recommended the book talk about how unlikeable the main characters are. That is accurate. But it is a remarkably well crafted book that is unflinchingly honest about depression and for that reason alone I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t put off by that description. It makes me want to go back and reread the only other Didion I’ve read, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays. I don’t remember it well, but remember enjoying it. I will likely read this again, as it seems like the type of book that rewards it.


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