Joan Didion is no stranger to doses of female depression. It’s a reoccurring theme in her work and considering she lost both her husband and daughter, Play It As It Lays offers a fictional portray of a woman dealing with loss – albeit a different type of loss.
Without the stomach for existential uncanniness, Play It As It Lays can seem quite morbid and destructive. Centered around the protagonist, Maria, the novel uncovers the thickening silence and helplessness around divorce, adultery, abortion, psych wards, and brewing depression.
Didion tackles difficult events and themes with grace. Usually, it is what is not being said that speaks louder than what is.
This can be seen in Maria’s repetitive answer to the question, “What do you want?” Time after time, she repeats, “Nothing.”
The single word ‘nothing’ bearing much more weight than the alternative descriptive metaphor.
If you read on through both the weight and lightness of the novel, you will find this tiny morsel of light that is enough of a passage to leave you satisfied.
The following passages showcase both Didion’s ominous prose and simplistic elegance.
“Just so. I am what I am. To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point.” – page 3
“Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate.” – page 5
“…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.” – page 7
“Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes.” – page 8
“I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?” – page 10
“He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.” – page 31
“There was a silence. Something real was happening: that was, as it were, her life.” – page 41
“It occurred to Maria that whatever arrangements were made, they worked less well for women.” – page 46
“When she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distant from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep.” – page 68
“Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal.” – page 73
“She knew a lot of things about disaster. She could manage.” – page 80
“The late sun seemed warm and benevolent on her skin and everything she saw looked beautiful, the summer pulse of life itself made manifest.” – page 83
“There would be plumbing anywhere she went.” – page 104
“She knew all the indices to the idle lonely.” – page 122
“…after he had left, the specter of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been.” – page 137
“…elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.” – page 171
“I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes me a letter. It is no longer necessary for them even to write me. I know when someone is thinking of me. I learn to deal with this.” – page 183
“…a radical surgeon of my own life.” – page 203
“I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing.” – page 210
“Because you and I, we know something. Because we’ve been out there where nothing is.” – page 212
The book quoted is the 2005 paperback edition.