Play It As It Lays: 12 Questions

My Antioch class and I read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I haven't read it for years but it was a big influence on my writing.  Didion captures the essence of Los Angeles, especially in her passages about the heat and the freeways. My class and I discussed the nihilistic aspects of the book but agreed that ultimately, after much turmoil and tragedy, Maria Wyeth, the actress protagonist, finds meaning in her relationship with her hospitalized daughter, Kate. 

rsz img 2228

I was curious to see how Play It As It Lays related to my 12 Questions. Here are my thoughts. Do you agree?:


Question 1: What is the character's gift: Maria is able to shut down as a way to survive.  This allows her to keep playing the game, to keep "driving," even if she hasn't found meaning  yet.
Question 2: What is the character's flaw:  Maria has become shut down, passive and somewhat nihilistic.

Question 3: What does the character want: At first Maria wants to keep driving and escape her life.  By the end she just wants Kate.
Question 4: What does the character need: To keep playing for something meaningful. Not to give up or fall into the abyss. To care and to love.

Questions 5: What is the characters's arc:  From shut down to caring and feeling.

Question 6: Who is the antagonist: Carter is the main antagonist.  Helene and BZ are secondary antagonists. The use of first person POV for the antagonists makes them dimensional

Question 7: What is the setting: Los Angeles in the 1960's, the movie scene, the freeways, the desert, the perfect setting for this story of a lost soul searching for meaning. In an interview about her work in the Paris Review,  Didion  says that the inspiration for her book Run River came from: "The heat. I think that's the way the whole thing began." She also says "I grew up in a dangerous landscape." That kind of danger permeates the landscape of Play It As It Lays.

Question 8: What is the style: Clipped, clean, spare. It expresses Maria's thin frame and the fragmented timeline reflects her broken state of mind. The shifts in POV  create the same effect. Interestingly, Didion notes that  she wanted to write the whole book in first but didn't feel she could pull it off, which is why she switched POV's.

Questions 9: What is the crisis: The abortion is the inciting incident and involves Maria in the direct action of the novel. (Didion calls the abortion "a narrative strategy to put Maria "center stage").  Maybe the crisis comes when Maria realizes that nine months have passed since the aborted baby's conception i.e. the date it would have been born has arrived. After that she sleeps with the actor and steals his car. Things get worse and worse from there.

Question 10: What is the climax: The death of BZ

Question 11: What is the resolution: Maria is with Kate.

Question 12: What is the theme:  In order to  truly live we must take risks and love and actively, meaningfully play the game.

"You work things out in the stories you tell." Joan Didion in The Paris Review, 2005.