Joan Didion: Play it as it lays

There are many variations of street craps. The simplest way is to either agree on or roll a number as the point, then roll the point again before you roll a seven. Unlike more complex proposition bets offered by casinos, street craps has more simplified betting options. The shooter is required to make either a Pass or a Don’t Pass bet if they want to roll the dice. Another player must choose to cover the shooter to create a stake for the game to continue. If there are several players, the rotation of the player who must cover the shooter may change with the shooter (comparable to a blind in poker). The person covering the shooter will always bet against the shooter. For example, if the shooter made a “Pass” bet, the person covering the shooter would make a “Don’t Pass” bet to win. Once the shooter is covered, other players may make Pass/Don’t Pass bets, or any other proposition bets, as long as there is another player willing to cover. (wikipedia)

The title of Play it as it lays, Joan Didion’s arguably most famous novel refers to the game of craps, a game of dice where the players bet on the outcome of a roll of dice. There are two possible outcomes, at the end of the line: “Pass” or “Don’t pass”, i.e. “Win” or “don’t win”. If anyone were asked to bet on Marie, the protagonist of Didion’s novel, now where would they put their money?

Marie, an actress in the grasps of an amoral, drug-addled, cruel Hollywood machinery, is doomed. I have, in conversation, compared Play it as it lays to Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises. Both feature broken characters who interact in faux-upbeat ways. It is, in both cases, a kind of schedule, something to observe, to keep up with. There is a beat to which the participants march, and it is a quick beat, not allowing for any pauses, or reflections. It’s with us or against us. Tune in OR drop out. Hemingway’s characters are all quick on the uptake and march to whatever beat presents itself. Hemingway’s tenderness, so outspoken in the stories, is nudged into the background here, soft music overshadowed by the beating of the drums and the marching, always the marching.

Marie, however, giving a child up for adoption, having an abortion, is, at one point, missing a step and, from that point on, is never in step again, always a tad late, always just missing the safe midstream current. An astonishing amount of people is prepared to help her, but it never works out.Her lethargy, depressions and simple mishaps, all of these things contribute to the disaster that her life quickly becomes. It was never much fun to begin with but the rapid rate at which it decomposes is frightening.

And that it is frightening, despite a protagonist who is perilously close to being a caricature of the typical Hollywood diva wreck, like the magnificent Monroe late in her (way too short) life, or today’s prime publicity victim, Britney Spears, that is over comes this character, is due to Didion’s language and structure. It is a very reduced language, almost, one is tempted to say: Hemingwayish in its harshness and brevity. And it’s short sentences, and meaningful line breaks. And short chapters. It slips from one point in time to another, bringing together the story of her demise by picking up those threads in her late life which brought it on. By the jumps back and forth between the various points in time the novel highlights connections and shows the rope tightening around Marie’s neck.

Marie is a victim and those who would accuse her of being lazy and lethargic and bringing the disaster upon herself, have not understood the extent to which her abortion and her failed marriage have broken her already embattled spirit. At one point even her ex-husband, who appeared to at least understand her predicament, accuses her of overreacting. In her sexual relations she is never in control, she is merely submitting. She doesn’t enjoy the act, she submits because this is how it’s done. It’s the beat again, and she’s marching, from bed to bed, from one man to the next. Until she misses a step.

It had seemed this past month as of they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or endings, no point beyond itself. […] She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on.

Play it as it lays is a remarkable novel, dark, brutal and fundamentally sad. It is highly recommended. It is the story of a woman who shoots a roll of dice and doesn’t pass and a whole society who bets against her and is happy to take her money. Alea jacta est, indeed. What’s done is done. ISBN


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