Book Response: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

General response to Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

After a brief prologue from the retrospective point-of-views of several other main characters, Play It As It Lays throws the reader into the uncomfortable, brusquely-narrated world of the protagonist, Maria.

Because we see those other perspectives first, it seems Didion chose Maria  (pronounced “Mar-EYE-ah”, she informs us early on) as the main narrator not for her character strengths, but because she is best-suited to tell the story at hand.  This story examined a group of bright young people crumbling at their foundations due to the strain of being “in the game”, as Maria would say.  Maria seemingly feels the strain most of all, until she finally proves her tenacity by choosing to stay alive while BZ commits suicide.  She vows to start a new life with her daughter,  the only person in her life who truly matters to her in the final pages.

Maria is an interesting choice for a protagonist.  She is by no means a strong character, and in fact floats rather passively through the present-day events of the novel without ever seeming to engage with them fully.  She appears passive and with very few real desires of her own.  It’s clear she has mostly given up trying to be happy.  This apparently stems from her mother’s sudden death, which she considers often.  Her regrets about her past and her shallow, timid personality cripple Maria’s will to act in her own interest.  Maria allows men to take advantage of her and acquiesces to their will without seeming to care.  The only thing she cares about is Kate, her preschool-aged daughter, and sadly, this love partially fuels her descent into madness.  In order to see her daughter again, Maria passively accepts

Some elements that struck me about this novel were its brevity and abundance of symbolism.  The most striking symbol to me was the egg, obviously related to childbirth and motherhood.  For me this threw light onto Maria’s actions and reactions throughout the novel.  For instance, it is revealed that Maria can shell and eat hardboiled eggs at 70mph on the freeway while driving.  She also later has nightmares of dead children and faulty plumbing right before her mental breakdown.  The theme of motherhood comes up again and again in regard to Maria.  Her apathy toward “the game” of life stems from the death of her mother, which in turn pushes her to focus all of her love and energy on her daughter.   Likewise, this is why getting an abortion so thoroughly destroys her sanity.  Another important symbol is the rattlesnake, which comes up again and again in the text.  In my opinion, they had to do with both her mother and the many male influences in her life.  It relates to her mother in the sense that when she was a child, she was bitten by a rattlesnake and learned from her mother’s Red Cross Handbook how to deal with snakebites.  Another interesting part about rattlesnakes was the story she told Carter about the man who wanted to talk to God and was found dead of a rattlesnake bite.

I also thought the desert was a telling choice for the landscape of this novel.  The theme of barrenness runs through the book, dryness, having nothing left to give oneself or others.  It represents well Maria’s state of mind throughout much of the book, especially after she has her abortion, and it also represents the dry emptiness she feels in her womb post-op.

Copyright Katherine Luketich 2012.  All rights reserved.

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