Joan Didion’s fiction is written in such surprisingly sparse language as to generate some unease with her readers, because in general, one would not think that the defining moments of a life—death, divorce, abortion—should be described with equal importance as a hair appointment or a restaurant menu. However, Didion’s distinctive style creates an opportunity for her readers and even her characters to analyze people and events in order to create meaning out of a cold explanation. Cynthia Griffin Wolff in “’Play it as it Lays’: Didion and the Diver Heroine,” describes this phenomenon in relation to the novel’s main character, Maria:
Maria cannot take… events with such cold, matter-of-fact competence. She has trouble with time: she forgets appointments, she forgets to call the answering service, she forgets to pay her bills. In all the things that ‘matter’… Maria is hopelessly inept. But in the more vital elements of life, she is the only person in this world who takes account, the only keeper of the record. She remembers her mother, even dreams about her…. And after the abortion, she is the only one who remembers the fetus that was flushed down the drain, (486).
In this passage, Wolff allows Maria to create meaning of her present situation through a remembrance of her past.
The stark difference between the events and their description is, in its own way, Didion’s attempt to describe what she views as disintegrating in American life. Edington describes the feeling, stating, “the American dream has spun out of control, and images of apocalyptic vision suggest that the moral disarray of Hollywood anticipates the decline and fall of American society,” (67). Or in other words, the evil that Didion sees in the classic Hollywood lifestyle, portrayed in Play it as it Lays, seems to preclude American society’s overall degradation. In a review of Kazan’s America America, Didion expounds on this notion:
America, America, God shed His grace on thee: it is the idea which has informed all our history, the idea which sent and still sends us West, the failing dream which drives us into easy violence and neurotic resignation and off the Golden Gate bridge; the remembered dream which haunts our uneasy wakening. No people ever expected so much of a country; none ever risked such failure, (qtd. in Brady 453).
Didion therefore translates this philosophy into her prose of nothingness, exemplifying the willingness with which Hollywood, and America, enters the moral apocalypse. In Play it as it Lays, Joan Didion describes cataclysmic personal events in startlingly objective and minimalist prose, making the devastating eerily casual, in order to display a disintegrating American identity.
Throughout Play it as it Lays, Maria suffers from an extreme lack of context as her personal history fragments and begins to disappear. This is most evident in her hometown of Silver Wells, New Mexico. In an unexpected coincidence, Maria meets an old friend from Silver Wells, Benny Austin, some years down the road in a Vegas casino. Benny begins to reminisce about the town, claiming that Maria’s father could have been a “Rockefeller in Silver Wells today,” (Didion 6). Maria responds by cutting his dreams off abruptly, “There isn’t any Silver Wells today… It’s in the middle of a missile range,” (6) briefly summarizing the disappearance of personal history and context. But not even Maria can ignore her past completely, asserting that “NOTHING APPLIES” (4) when painful memories from the past reemerge. Reflecting back on her conversation with Benny, Maria thinks “maybe I never should have left [Silver Wells], but that line of thinking leads nowhere because as I told Benny there is no Silver Wells,” (9). Wolff describes Maria’s return to nostalgic thinking: “not even Maria can disengage her mind from the past. It crowds upon her in not altogether disconnected fragments,” (481). These fragments return to her in pieces, as she sometimes awakes from the monotony of daily life to find that “Silver Wells was with her again,” (Didion 86) another chilling, brief way of reminding the reader that Maria’s destroyed history continually haunts her.
Wolff asserts that the silver in Silver Wells stays innately with Maria throughout the novel, crafted by Didion to show the importance of this lost city:
Maria is a girl of the silver screen, and she was reared in the town of Silver Wells, a town where the ‘wells’ have never had water and where the silver stopped flowing long ago. But silver still drifts in and out of the fiction—in echoes of her mother's longing to cross the ocean in a silver plane, in the silver vinyl dress that Maria buys to help herself forget the abortion, in the silverlake home of the charlatan hypnotist… (485).
This particular lack of historical context for Maria renders many aspects of life meaningless, as she mentions that thinking of her nonexistent past “leads nowhere,” (9). H. Jennifer Brady, in “The Fiction of Joan Didion”, elaborates, stating that “for Didion the idealization of a ‘lost world’ imbued with traditional norms is itself suspect since our remembered past is a mythic construction,” (463) which plays in nicely with Maria’s assertion. Maria’s memories of Silver Wells are a “mythic construction” because its relevance has been lost in its abrupt disappearance, a disappearance that is never fully realized in Didion’s cold prose.
This contextual void also resonates in Maria’s memories of her personal relationships: with her mother, her husband Carter, and her lover Les Goodwin. Maria is “consumed… by questions” about her mother’s accidental death, as she “woke crying for her mother” (60) and spent time imagining and reimagining the situation. After her speculations drew out, Didion explains: “Maria did not know whether any of that had actually happened but she used to think it,” (61). Just as Silver Wells disappears from Maria’s present, her reality, and her memory, so does her mother. Just as Silver Wells falls victim to annihilation by missile, so does her mother by wild coyotes that devour her body.
The cool way in which Didion describes these horrific events contrasts with their importance, as in the description of Maria’s reaction to the news of her mother’s death:
My father’s letter was mailed to an old address and forwarded, I read it in a taxi one morning when I was late for a sitting and when I hit the fact in the middle of the second paragraph I began to scream and did not work for a month after, (9).
The loss of her mother, the terrible way in which she died, the delay incurred by Maria’s change in address all contribute to an overwhelming void in the protagonists’ life. A void which she miserably attempts to fill with her arcane reminisces about the death.
Maria’s personal relationships with Les Goodwin and Carter suffer in a similar manner. Didion relates Maria’s problem with these relationships:
She tried to remember Carter. She tried to remember Les Goodwin. She could remember it all but none of it seemed to come to anything. She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on, (69).
Unlike her mother’s death, Maria remembers Carter and Les Goodwin clearly. However, even when she can recall details and events and conversations, she can extract no meaning from it all. In doing this, Didion asserts that an absence of memory and a lack of physical presence are not the only reasons that one lacks context. For Maria, both memory and physical presence are not enough to make relationships meaningful. The choice to portray Maria in this light is further explained by Brady:
[Didion] chooses in Play It As It Lays to portray Maria Wyeth from within the confines of a deliberately limited self-consciousness because of her perception that the decision to live in a truncated present causes life to become two-dimensional, or "thin" when viewed from an imaginative perspective, (463).
This “truncated present” of the Hollywood ideal that Maria inhabits lacks context: history, significant personal relationships, connections from memory. This is artistically portrayed by Didion, as her language and style of writing mirror Maria’s “thin” existence, a style that Vivian Gornick convincingly describes: “The prose of nothingness is given texture, inner distance enriched, etherizing numbness lent dimension,” (6).
The most frightening event in Play it as it Lays is Maria’s abortion. In the beginning, Maria is forced into the abortion by Carter, who tells Maria he will take their daughter Kate if she does not do it. When she calls the number of the doctor that Carter gave her, Maria speaks with a nameless man:
“You want an appointment with the doctor,” he said.“When could he see me.”“The doctor will want to know how many weeks.”“How many weeks what?”There was a silence. “How advanced is the problem, Maria,” the voice said finally, (56).
The chilling description of the abortion advances throughout the novel, to a point that borders on the ridiculously nonchalant. For example, Maria later has a phone conversation with Carter, who wants to know if Maria is going through with the procedure, asking impatiently, “what did they say, Maria,” (62). Maria, perturbed by the doctor and Carter’s casual treatment of the abortion, blurts out: “They said they’d call me up some day and on the day they called me up I’d meet them some place with a pad and a belt and $1,000 in cash. All right, Carter? All right?” (62). The ridiculousness continues when Maria drives with the doctor to the place where the procedure will take place. During the drive, the abortionist asks, “Get pretty good mileage on this [car]?” (78) and explains to Maria his plans to buy a Camaro, to which Maria replies, “You think you’ll buy a Camaro,” (79). The indifferent nature with which Didion describes these events makes them all the more important, as if by leaving out the psychological and ethical problems with Maria’s abortion she makes them all the more imbedded in the text.
Maria’s reaction to the abortion mirrors those preceding it, in that her problems with it resonate in Didion’s lack of explanation. For example, Maria obsesses with the fact that the abortionist had flushed her fetus down the toilet that day. The sound of the plumbing in her house becomes unbearable, but “of course she could not call a plumber, because she had known all along what would be found in the pipes, what hacked pieces of human flesh,” (97). The lack of morality in Carter and the abortionists’ actions surrounding the event haunt Maria in these delusional fantasies. Maria tries to distract herself by going back to work, buying a sleek silver dress and having a fling with Les Goodwin. However, the memory of her would-have-been child continually haunts her. Didion explains, “she bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it,” (115).
When talking to Les Goodwin, Maria analyzes their conversation: “They mentioned Kate, Carter, Felicia, the weather, Oxnard, his dislike of motel rooms, her fear of subterfuge. They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino,” (135) Encino being the location where her abortion was performed. Maria, unlike those around her, remembers the abortion as an extremely significant event, the repercussions of which she suffers through daily. Part of her suffering is that she is the only one who recognizes the abortion’s importance. However, Brady purports that the significance is not fully recognized:
Didion's portrait of the psychological effects of this abortion is chilling. Its traumatic impact on Maria derived in part from the fact that her bereavement is never acknowledged on a conscious level… (464).
Not only is the abortion ignored by her husband, lover and friends, but by Maria herself, for the only way she can deal with the incredibly pain the situation has caused her is to attempt to ignore it completely. However, Wolff asserts that
We are not meant to rest satisfied with the delicate nuances of Maria's emotional life; quite the contrary, Didion demands that we use Maria's agonized explorations as a vehicle for the examination of nothing less than our heritage as Americans, (481).
Therefore, Didion’s art lies in her ability to portray importance and assign significance through a character that “professes to know nothing but nothingness itself,” (482). Gornick takes the analysis further, stating that:
“This is the literature of the walking wounded. Didion's contribution to this literature is a rhythmic use of ellipsis devoted to capturing the taste and feel of permanent interior hell. Volumes of unspoken messages are trapped inside her tight-lipped juxtapositions, her mysterious transitions, her extraordinary sentence repetitions…” (6).
Didion’s “literature of the walking wounded” is an extremely appropriate fit for what the author sees as declining in American society. Maria is rendered in such a way as to represent those in modern times who feel themselves pulled into a new disintegrating morality without the ability to turn away. Brady states that in Play it as it Lays,
We see a Hollywood society with no sense of history, of the links between then and now, and we watch this world disintegrate into suicides, abortion, sexual promiscuity, divorce, and neurotic lethargy: into nada, (465).
And Didion’s portrayal of Hollywood’s tragic decline can be applied to all of America, as it is the most famous of American stereotypes and the most longed-for ideal. This, for Didion, is the most significant tragedy of all.