“She’s less than sure if her heart has come to stay in San Jose
and her neverborn child haunts her now as she speeds down the freeway
she tries her luck with the traffic police out of boredom more than spite
. . .
she says a girl needs a gun these days on account of the rattlesnakes.”
-Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Rattlesnakes”
The first few chapters of “Play It As It Lays,” an unrelentingly bleak novel by Joan Didion set among jaded Hollywood insiders in the late 1960s, had me worried the book would be a bad influence on me. For whatever reason (or no reason), I’ve always been susceptible to nihilism’s undertow. During my morning walks around the time I started the book, I found myself thinking things along the lines of: “There are no universal rules when it comes to relationships. There is only what people like and don’t like; what they’ll put up with and what they won’t.” Night after night, reading a few of the short, sparely written chapters before going to sleep, I would think that surely the book was going to start going easy on the protagonist, Maria (Mar-EYE-ah) Wyeth, a young has-been actress trapped in a dead relationship with her mildly sadistic director husband.
When I say the book is bleak, here’s what I mean. Maria is riding in a taxi cab in New York City and receives a letter from her father in rural Nevada, telling Maria that her mother has driven off the highway and been killed and coyotes have eaten her face. There’s a glib abortionist who, as he’s operating on Maria illegally in a motel room in Encino, says, “You hear that scraping sound? That should be music to your ears.” Nearly every snippet of dialogue is mean; nearly every character talks to Maria as if she’s stupid.
I didn’t get what the book was getting at until somewhere toward the middle, after the pivotal event of Maria’s abortion, in which she longs to talk to her mother, who has been dead for years now. There’s a thread of motherhood running through the book – Maria and her husband have a toddler child, Kate, who has some sort of severe cognitive and behavioral disorder and is institutionalized (the nurses and Maria’s husband scold Maria for visiting there too often), and Kate seems to be the one thing in life Maria is sticking around for. There’s the connection Maria still feels to her mother, and to Silver Wells, Nevada, the town she grew up in that is – tellingly – now just a barren place where the U.S. military tests rockets. There’s the leaden sense of regret Maria dwells in after the abortion, every day, with every heartbeat – or to put it Maria’s way, “the point” of doing anything ended “in a motel room in Encino.” For Maria, motherhood is connection – to one’s roots, to something real, to “the point” of living.
I usually try to skip the Introduction to novels and avoid reading reviews when I’m pretty sure I’m going to write my own, to keep me from thinking about a book what I’m “supposed” to think. But I happened to read on Wikipedia that snakes are a metaphor that slink up again and again here, in that way that spurs English teachers to tell their students to get out their hi-liter pens. So I was conscious of this as I read, although the motif makes itself obvious and I’m sure I would’ve picked up on it anyway. When it comes to all the bad things that can happen in life, the “rattlesnake in the playpen” is what causes Maria anxiety – not apocalypse, not “general devastation” – because death by snake bite is “particular,” and “punitive,” she says.
In her empty days, Maria drives on the freeway, never going anywhere. At one point, she goes to Vegas – not for any particular reason, just because she does. Her hours, days, and weeks are filled with moments that amount to nothing, that are not the sum of their parts: “When she finally lay down nights in the purple room she would play back the day’s tape, a girl singing into a microphone and a fat man dropping a glass, cards fanned on a table and a dealer’s rake in closeup and a woman in slacks crying and the opaque blue eyes of the guard at some baccarat table. A child in the harsh light of a crosswalk on the Strip. A sign on Fremont Street. A light blinking. In her half sleep the point was ten, the jackpot was on eighteen, the only man that could ever reach her was the son of a preacher man, someone was down sixty, someone was up. Daddy wants a popper and she rode a painted pony let the spinning wheel spin.”
And this fragment is typical of Maria’s thought patterns; here she is remembering her parents and life in rural Nevada before leaving for New York City to become an actress (at her gambler dad’s behest, it seems, because in one scene he asks how can she win if she’s not at the table?) : “…the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred miles back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a wilted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.”
The genius of creating this emotionally desolate landscape is that when there’s a moment with heart, it’s all the more powerful for being something rare. Acts of kindness in the book feel like nothing less than miracles; as a reader, you feel grateful for the reprieve from so much callousness among the characters in Maria’s world. And when the book’s story picks up the pace near the end – it’s breathtaking, and I simply could not put the book down until I had read the astonishing and perfect final words.
The Sum Up: This book might have cured me of my nihilism. If you drive for long enough through the desert, you’ll make it to where there’s life. I recommend this novel for fans of sparely written, minimalist fiction.