Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays: The Dark Heart of the American Dream

An excerpt from the literary icon's novel about loneliness and life's unanswerable questions.


The name Joan Didion is synonymous with a lot of things: the West Coast, a barely-there smile, a distanced but prescient prose. In fact, it’s impossible to read a line from, say, Slouching Towards Bethlehem without knowing exactly who you’re reading—and yet Didion herself has always remained something of an enigma. 

Though mostly known for her nonfiction, she’s the author of several screenplays and novels. Her fiction debut came in 1963 with Run, River, a book that was edited by her then-future husband, John Gregory Dunne (whose death would become the subject of her bestselling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking). 

But Didion’s most famous turn in the world of fiction was the 1970 novel Play It As It Lays. Hailed as everything from terrifying and scathing to “a thing so bright sometimes it hurts” (Time), the book was adapted into a feature film two years later—and like its author, feels both raw and unnervingly aloof.

Related: On Joan Didion: Her Books, Life, and Legacy

Play It As It Lays follows Maria Wyeth, a 30-something mother who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. How she got there is a story that unwinds quickly and erratically—not at all unlike Maria’s state of mind (or perhaps even of Didion’s, who is notoriously neurotic)—through multiple perspectives and short chapters. The book doesn't flinch from things like divorce, casual sex, or abortion, as Maria chases oblivion to escape toxic relationships, depression, and maternal grief. And in true Didion fashion, Play It As It Lays' writing is sparse but loaded, evoking 1960s California in a way only Didion can.

At its heart, Play It As It Lays is about loneliness and emotional emptiness—the realization that things happen, and there are no answers. Still, Maria persists, rolling with the punches. She, like all of us in our darkest moments, must make do with the hand she's dealt. She must hold her head high and keep playing the game.

Read on for an excerpt from the first chapter.




Play It as It Lays

By Joan Didion

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? Some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? 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. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened. (Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate. What I play for here is Kate. Carter put Kate in there and I am going to get her out.) They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Still from "Play It As It Lays" (1972) via Universal Pictures


So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.

Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now O. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter to you. We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody’s second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was. What we had in Silver Wells was three hundred acres of mesquite and some houses and a Flying A and a zinc mine and a Tonopah & Tidewater RR siding and a trinket shop and later, after my father and his partner Benny Austin hit on the idea that Silver Wells was a natural tourist attraction, a midget golf course and a reptile museum and a restaurant with some slots and two crap tables. The slots were not exactly moneymakers because the only person who played them was Paulette, with nickels from the cashbox. Paulette ran the restaurant and (I see now) balled my father and sometimes let me pretend to cashier after school. I say “pretend” because there were no customers. As it happened the highway my father counted on came nowhere near and the money ran out and my mother got sick and Benny Austin went back to Vegas, I ran into him in the Flamingo a few years ago. “Your father’s only Waterloo was he was a man always twenty years before his time,” Benny advised me that night in the Flamingo. “The ghost-town scheme, the midget golf, the automatic blackjack concept, what do you see today? Harry Wyeth could be a Rockefeller in Silver Wells today.”

“There isn’t any Silver Wells today,” I said. “It’s in the middle of a missile range.” I’m speaking about then, Maria. As it was.” Benny called for a round of Cuba Libres, a drink I have never known anyone but my mother and father and Benny Austin to order, and I gave him some chips to play for me and went to the ladies’ room and never came back. I told myself it was because I didn’t want Benny to see the kind of man I was with, I was with a man who was playing baccarat with hundred-dollar bills behind the rope, but that wasn’t all of it. I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.


I mean it leads nowhere. Benny Austin, my mother sitting in Paulette’s empty restaurant when it was 120° outside looking through her magazines for contests we could enter (Waikiki, Paris France, Roman Holiday, my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas, cross the ocean in a silver plane, she would croon to herself and mean it, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain), the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a wilted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.

New York: what sense did it make? An eighteen-year old girl from Silver Wells, Nevada, graduates from the Consolidated Union High School in Tonopah and goes to New York to take acting lessons, how do you figure it? My mother thought being an actress was a nice idea, she used to cut my hair in bangs to look like Margaret Sullavan, and my father said not to be afraid to go because if certain deals worked out as anticipated he and my mother would be regular airline passengers between Las Vegas and New York City, so I went. As it turned out, the last time but once I ever saw my mother was sitting in the Vegas airport drinking a Cuba Libre, but there you are. Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now. New York. Let me stick to certain facts. What happened was this: I looked all right (I’m not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I’m telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights. The night my mother ran the car off the highway outside Tonopah I was with a drunk rich boy at the old Morocco, as close as I could figure later: I didn’t know about it for a couple of weeks because the coyotes tore her up before anybody found her and my father couldn’t tell me. (“Jesus but we had a good thing going in Silver Wells,” Benny Austin said that night in the Flamingo, and maybe they did, maybe I did, maybe I never should have left, but that line of thinking leads nowhere because as I told Benny there is no Silver Wells. The last I heard of Paulette she was living in a Sun City. Think that one over.) 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. The letter is still in my makeup box but I am careful not to read it unless I am drunk, which in my current situation is never. “This is a bad hand but God if there is one, and Honey I sincerely believe there must be ‘Something’, never meant it to set you back in your Plans,” is how it ends. “Don’t let them bluff you back there because you’re holding all the aces.

Easy aces. I am not sure what year it was because I have this problem with as it was, but after a while I had a bad time. (There, you will say now, she believed her sins were unpardonable, but I told you, nothing applies.) The tulips on Park Avenue looked dirty and I was sent twice to Montego Bay to get some color back in my face but I could not sleep alone and stayed up late and it was falling apart with Ivan Costello and everything showed in the camera by then. Of course I did not get back to Nevada that year because that was the year I screamed at Ivan and married Carter, and the next was the year we came here and Carter put me in a couple of little pictures (one you may have seen, a doctor here claims to have seen it but he will say anything to make me talk, the other never distributed) and I don’t know what happened the year after that and then I started getting to Nevada quite a bit, but by then my father was dead and I was not married any more.

Those are the facts. Now I lie in the sun and play solitaire and listen to the sea (the sea is down the cliff but I am not allowed to swim, only on Sundays when we are accompanied) and watch a hummingbird. I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

Want to keep reading? Download Play It As It Lays.

Photos (from top to bottom): Bart Scholliers / Unsplash; Universal Pictures; Wolf Schram / Unsplash; synthisis