Joan Didion’s classic, Play is as it Lays, published in 1970, is a spare, closely written satire/exposé of Hollywood film life in the late sixties. The story is filtered through the biography of Maria Wyeth, one time model, actress and party girl. Maria is well and truly over it (the novel opens in a psychiatric rest home), and as her grit and glam tale unrolls, first person and third, it’s not difficult to see why: alcoholism, drugs, marital violence, promiscuity, coerced abortions. On the other hand, you might start to find yourself wearying or questioning such an excess of ennui, or perhaps consider it a little first world to be young, talented, good-looking, rich, and unable to find any structure or meaning in life.
Much of the novel is dialogue―Didion and her husband were both successful screen writers, in fact wrote the screenplay to the movie of the novel―and despite the apparent casualness of presentation, every word is cleverly weighted. This was a novel I enjoyed more for its craft than its content; beyond an attractive façade of jaded sophistication, one struggles to care for these people and their ‘stage’ tragedies. I was reminded of Brett Easton Ellis’ breakout novel Less than Zero, much the same subject matter set a decade or so later. Ellis’ novel is more sensational, in fact totally overcooked, whereas Didion’s characters’ actions and reactions always remain believable.
So the novel came across at the end for me a bit like an anthropological study. Just what were these people like in L.A. at that time? Didion knows, Didion shows, and you do get the genuine slice-of-life experience here, but it’s a slice you digest rather rapidly.