When I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I was sitting alone in a dark under-heated back room in my office building, shivering from the cold and feeling an urgency to finish before my first appointment of the day. The cold and urgency transferred easily to my reading of the book, so that I had a kind of Neverending Story experience in which I temporarily felt myself enter the book. Only instead of child-like empresses, there were child-like corpses.
I didn’t expect to ever read a book as bleak as that again, but I think Play it As it Lays may even have McCarthy beat. At least in The Road, the setting is literally post-apocalyptic– well, that’d depress the hell out of anyone. Didion’s book is only figuratively set at the end of the world, taking place in and around Hollywood and L.A., and set in the late 1960s, during a time when a lot of people felt that the world as they knew it, at least, had come to an end. I have heard the book described as a critique of this time period and culture, but it didn’t read that way to me. While the book’s nihilism certainly draws from its era and physical surroundings, Didion’s depiction of utter hopelessness is distilled through the experiences of a single character, that of 31-year-old actress Maria Wyeth. In The Road, the man and the boy at least have each other, and the hope that they will find others like themselves, and the possibility that one day the world will recover from its temporary desolation. Maria Wyeth lives in her own personal blackness from which there is no escape, and it is terrifying.
Maria herself tells us right at the start that she is writing from a Neuropsychiatric ward, but shortly thereafter, the book shifts to third person. Though Maria has some truly dismal experiences, we are never given any sense that she has ever taken much pleasure from or found much purpose to life: “I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?” Young and beautiful, she marries a filmmaker and gives two acclaimed performances in pictures of his, but is too emotionally unstable to work much beyond that. We learn that her daughter, Kate, was once a normal healthy child but is now in a facility with an unspecified disorder. This, and an abortion she has later, seem to be the catalysts for her ultimate dependence on drugs and unwavering state of despair. Her friend Helene calls her selfish, and maybe she is, but it is the selfishness of a person who is deeply mentally ill. Those who’ve never experienced mental illness may not understand that an illness can have its own logic, its own internal consistencies that bind a person inside a mental prison. Sylvia Plath compared this kind of immersion in depression to having a “bell jar” dropped over her, and Didion drops a bell jar over the reader for just over 200 pages.
Didion’s writing is replete with metaphor and at the same time crisply minimalistic. It is clearly influenced by Hemingway. Its curt meter is part of what sustains the tension of the work, and its sharpness mirrors the physical pain Maria experiences, especially during her abortion. Physical pain seems to be the only thing Maria can feel sharply; she is so high on drugs most of the time that she seems dulled to other experiences.
There were times during the book I almost felt insulted by the unrelenting pessimism. It seems to upbraid one’s very existence, as if asking us what it was we thought was so important. It is the manifestation, in literary form, of the depressive’s feeling that he is depressed because he is the only one who really knows how bad things are; everyone else is a blind puppy.
Some books will always have readers because they work with universal themes. Some of the best writing feels big because it precisely describes the acutely specific. Play it As is Lays takes the latter route, and does it well, and this is why it has been such a powerful book for some decades now.