A text of 'sunless negativity', Play it as it lays is a haunting must-readInstagram/a good used book

I cannot think of Play it as it Lays without shuddering at its compulsive – at times almost repellent – obsession with snakes, not only as a result of my own life-long phobia, but because their immersion in the text speaks so faultlessly to the taunting and sunless negativity that permeates the novel from first breath to last. For the narrative, both trailing and contained, coils like the images of “the rattlesnake in the playpen”, the coral snake’s “neurotoxic poison”, the snakes “stretched out on the warm asphalt” of Nevada, are woven throughout the text, like the winding California freeways that Maria drives aimlessly and incessantly.

Even Didion’s voice feels serpentine – venomous and hypnotic in its slick, hissing movement through the story. It is this unhappy marriage between subject matter and style that is so striking, whereby a thrilling flatness of prose blankets what can only be described as a harrowing – and, to be frank, messy – tragedy.

“The narrative, both trailing and contained, coils like the images of “the rattlesnake in the playpen”, the coral snake’s “neurotoxic poison”, the snakes “stretched out on the warm asphalt” of Nevada”

The novel (Didion’s second, first published in 1970) turns 50 this year, and traces the downfall of model, actress and estranged mother Maria Wyeth. We first meet Maria in a psychiatric hospital in LA, with an unravelling recollection of her past (that is, the collapse of both her personal and professional life) exposing a denuded portrait of 1960s Hollywood, awash with violence, treachery, and ultimately self-destruction.

This is a book about dealing with disintegration, whereby both Didion and her protagonist share a striking – at times almost ludicrous – capacity to find (or even create) dejection in everything. And so Play it as it Lays becomes a sort of Nihilist’s Guidebook, although crucially, not one that encompasses Didion’s own life, for she insists that “actually, the only thing Maria and I have in common is an occasional inflection, which I picked up from her – not vice versa – when I was writing the book. I like Maria a lot. Maria was very strong, very tough”. So is the book, detonating over 84 terse chapters, 224 (often half blank) pages.

It is this blankness, whiteness even, that seems to encompass so much of the story. Didion famously described her creation of Maria in 1976 as based upon a mental image of “a young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress”, who “walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning”, and upon this flat blank base she impresses an intense concern with the darkest of questions; thus, whiteness becomes, not an innocence, but an empty abnegation, prefiguring Maria’s inevitable undoing. Maria dreams of driving “into the hard white empty core of the world”, so enwrapped in herself that she hopes to write “a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all... white space. Empty space”, a direct nod to Didion’s aim, and – it’s safe to say – achievement.


Mountain View

Nations, novels and new beginnings

This emptiness is pointedly reflective of the times, with the blankness of the pages and fragmentary nature of Didion’s prose ensuring that the reader too is tormented by white space, wearied with nothingness. Speaking in the excellent 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold, Didion reflects on how her protagonist is detached from her surroundings in the way that a reporter is detached, and thus the book becomes about “what you feel when you try not to feel”, about “coming to terms with the meaninglessness of experience”. Didion claims everyone in LA experiences this – but there is something kind of triumphant in this reception of existentialism, a sort of warm dark. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the novel’s opening line: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Of course, this concern with the concept of ‘meaning’ (and its implied alliance to ‘nothing’) forces us to question the very function of the novel in itself, indicative of a Didion increasingly paralysed by her own talent, and by a conviction that writing in itself is a “whiteness”. However, in asking us to draw such a blank, to read it as it lays, Didion allows a brightness – perhaps even a light – to break in. In turn, we must be forgiven for acknowledging a mastery of prose and of probing that allows Play it as it Lays, steeped in its own (both nihilistic and sanguine) shadow, to haunt on, after all these years.