Summary of "Play It as It Lays" by Joan Didion

"Play It as It Lays" is a novel written by Joan Didion and published in 1970. It was ranked No. 63 in Time Magazine's All-Time Best 100 English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The novel is known for Didion's style of fast-paced storytelling, unflinching observational eye, triplet cadences and run-on sentences that highlight her writing.


The novel follows Maria Wyeth, a 31-year-old actress and former model, who is institutionalized in a neuropsychiatric hospital; it traces her life and how she came to be there. According to Lore Segal, in her New York Times article "Maria Knew What 'Nothing' Meant," "Maria is an expert on Nothing." After her boyfriend, Ivan, leaves her, Maria meets Carter Lang, whom she marries. They have a daughter, Kate, who may or may not be mentally ill. Other characters who play a supporting role are Les, with whom Maria has an affair and becomes pregnant, and BZ, a friend with whom she sleeps and who remains friends with her until his death.

Structure and Style

The book is nontraditional, in that it opens and closes with passages of first-person narration. Between the beginning and end are 84 chapters, many of which are remarkably short -- some merely a few lines or sentences long. According to Luke Whisnant of East Carolina University, these chapters are visually driven: "A very visual narrative, dialogue-driven, cinematic."


In his analysis, Whisnant claims that the plot is buried within the circuitous structure of the narrative, if one is present at all. However, a plot line does exist; the novel is Maria's life story. She leaves her home in Nevada for New York, where she pursues her dream of acting in movies. She falls in with Ivan, who leaves after she quits acting and modeling. She then moves to Hollywood, marries Carter and gives birth to Kate. When Kate is unable to requite the affection she desires, Maria sleeps around and becomes pregnant again; Carter demands an abortion, Maria concedes, and she begins losing her mind. She and BZ decide that life is meaningless, and in the end BZ commits suicide, leaving Maria to soldier on for Kate's sake.


Nihilism is the main theme of the novel, punctuated by Maria and BZ's conclusion near the end that life is pointless and that they are tired of pretending otherwise. This revelation is the direct cause of BZ's suicide, as he decides to "stop playing the game." Segal quotes Didion, via Maria, to illustrate Maria's epiphany as something learned and valuable: "I know something Carter never knew ... or maybe you. I know what 'nothing' means."

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