Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is a short novel whose protagonist, Maria, is so out of touch with her own feelings that she does not even feel them at all. They’re there, she just never allows them to bubble up to her consciousness and therefore has no depth in her life. The novel begins and ends in Maria’s first-person point of view, but some other chapters are written from third person limited (focused on Maria) or from the point of view of other characters who focus their conversations on Maria. There are many subtle ways that Didion creates a persona that is believably shallow.
Maria’s flat-lined heart is suggested in her way of speaking and thinking. She thinks and speaks mostly in bare, unelaborated statements, “Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point” (3). She often asks questions punctuated by a period, as if she didn’t really care to get a response at all, “ ‘Who is it,’ she said” (25). This happens over and over again. And the other characters do this too, suggesting what we can’t ignore as the narrative unfolds: Maria is symbolic of a culture of flat-lined hearts. Dialogue is spare, often crude, always to the point and in many instances without speech tags. Chapter thirty-two consists of thirteen lines total, mostly dialogue of only a few words back and forth and only one speech tag. Among those lines is the line, “Maria said nothing” (95), which is a line that is repeated again and again throughout the novel and reveals Maria’s stubbornness in acknowledging any depth in life or conversation. She also doesn’t get or acknowledge jokes. She’s too numb even to allow herself to laugh. She thinks of her life as a movie or card game often, and in this way she just goes through the motions with a poker face. She does not want to delve into why her mind works the way it does, she just wants to will herself to play it as it lays.
This comes up at least a few times when her husband Carter tries to pull out of her what she’s thinking as he says directly here:
“I’m interested in the mechanics of this, Maria. I’m
interested in how your mind works. How exactly you
picked this doctor out, why this particular doctor.”
Maria folded her scarf and smoothed it carefully
over her bare knees. “He was near Saks,” she whispered
finally. “I was having my hair done at Saks.” (51)
Maria thinks, but she does not ever consider why she thinks what she does or what it signifies or means. She just vomits out the words that come to her mind in the way that she vomits up her pills and thinks nothing of it. In fact, the novel ends with her proclaiming, “I know what nothing means, and keep on playing” (214).
The only reason the reader knows that there is an emotional life inside her at all is through her dreams and some of the imagistic visions of the narrator, as in this passage of a dream she has after an abortion she doesn’t seem to want, but doesn’t resist being pushed into by Carter:
“The man in the white duck pants materialized and then the doctor,
in his rubber apron. At that point she would fight for consciousness
but she was never able to wake herself before the dream revealed its
inexorable intention, before the plumbing stopped up, before they all
fled and left her there, gray and bubbling up in every sink. 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).
This passages symbolizes how she evades any depth in human relationships (like she won’t call the plumber in her dreams), seeks no help for her state of nothingness, because she does not want to deal with the hacked pieces of human flesh that would be found there: her despair, her suffering, her loss, her rage. She wills herself to play her life without acknowledging that it’s more than just another role she is playing, more than just another card game. Her nothingness is revealed in her way of speaking and her way of thinking—or rather, of not thinking much at all and speaking only the most necessary words, nothing extra.