Joan Didion

Joan Didion
Play It as It Lays

“I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would be better than what went out on the last.”

Joan Didion’s writing is so good it’s almost unearthly. It grips you like a fever: You come away from her words astonished and wrung out. The surface is all taut control; the underside is sheer terror. “My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: It was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake.”

Maria Wyeth, the central figure of Play It as It Lays, moves through her world as if sleepwalking, wracked alternately by nightmares and insomnia. “NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word ‘nothing’ were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune.”

Like any gambler, she is governed by ritual, superstition, talismans. Fearing pregnancy, Maria sleeps in white satin sheets as a charm to induce her monthly period. She spends whole days driving the hot, looping asphalt of Los Angeles freeways, eating only hard-boiled eggs cracked on the steering wheel, drinking only gas-station Coke. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action . . . I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.”

Maria’s one fierce desire is to rescue her four-year-old daughter, even as everything around her slides into hell. “In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure out what went wrong . . . Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.”

“What I play for here is Kate.”

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