Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion is a novel that seems to centralize the majority of its language on a single main character. Due to the fact that we are only able to see into the mind of the main character, Maria, it can be argued that this novel only essentially has one character with the rest are just simply filling space. This begs the question, would William Gass argue that Maria is simply a linguistic location in Didion’s novel? After all, “a character for [Gass] is any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier” (A Debate 28). If we consider the fact that his perfect novel would have just one character in which all of the language flows toward, then we would assume he would appreciate the way in which Didion constructed her novel. Didion only gives us Maria’s perspective on the world and even when the other characters are speaking, they tell us only about Maria. Upon further inspection, it is easy to see that while there simply is just one character, Maria, we learn more about her through the other characters in the novel and how she interacts with them. They are vital to the plot-line and to making Maria a well-rounded character. She is seen as a virtual human being not only by her interaction with the other characters, but also through the emotional rollercoaster she rides throughout the novel. She then is not a linguistic location that Didion has created, but a virtual human being that Gardner would appreciate.
Didion guides us in mainly a third-person-limited perspective through the novel about a troubled woman learning to deal with her recent divorce, loss of celebrity status, and a painful abortion. Through the bulk of the novel, we see Maria’s life being told to us from a narrator who seems to know everything that Maria is thinking and feeling. There is conversation with the other characters, but we never know directly how they are feeling. It is almost as if Maria is speaking to us through the narrator and giving the audience her own views and opinions. For example, in a conversation with Carter about her abortion, he says to Maria, “‘You have to swear you’ll call the doctor…if something’s wrong.’ Instead she took a Dexadrine to stay awake. Awake she could always call an ambulance. Awake she could save herself if it came to that” (Didion 92). We hear the words Carter is saying, but we do not know what he is feeling. Instead, we are on Maria’s side, hearing her own personal reasoning through the narrator. But there are rare opportunities where we get the first-person perspective from each of the important characters. Beginning with Maria, the most essential character of the novel, we hear what she thinks of herself as if the events in the novel already happened, although we don’t know that upon first read. She cannot remember the years that happened during the novel because she says, “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” (8). Then we have Helene speaking to us, but it is a monologue concentrated completely on Maria. Helene’s poor opinion of her is evident when she says, “she was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria” (10). Here we learn of Helene’s jealousy of Maria. After Helene, Carter speaks about Maria and how she “never understood friendship, conversation, the normal amenities of social exchange” (11). This shows us Carter’s frustration with Maria’s depression and his unsympathetic attitude towards it. Right away the reader gets the hint that this novel is going to be entirely focused on Maria. After these brief first-person narrators, we never hear how Helene and Carter are thinking again aside from what can be inferred from their dialogue with Maria.
One would assume from what Gass has argued about character development that this evident centralization of Maria would qualify as “language [that] basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, [the character]” (A Debate 28). There would now seem to be “an absolute, idealist system” (28) that Gass prizes. But unfortunately for Gass, that doesn’t seem to quite be true in this novel. Through Maria’s reactions and conversations with BZ, Ivan, Helene, Carter, Les, and others, we gain a greater understanding of what is happening inside Maria’s head. Although much of the language does focus on Maria, the other characters are a necessity in the novel for us to learn more about Maria as a virtual human being. We also learn about the other characters through Maria. Because Maria and the other characters interrelate with each other so frequently throughout the novel, we can’t help but see them as real human beings based on these day to day interactions like the different film parties and the times in the desert. With these characters, Gass’ theory of character development just doesn’t fit. There is an interaction between them that Gardner would value because he believes that “we know a character by what he does: what he does to other people, and what they do back to him” (28).
John Gardner wants us to not only learn about a character through their relationships, but he also wants us to feel their emotions through the author’s chosen words. Gass believes that it is wrong to feel emotion through the book but Gardner says “it’s not. I say a book is nothing but a written symbol of a dream” (29). Since Maria seems to be in such an empty and bleak state throughout the novel, we begin to feel her depression and isolation through the words and scenarios Didion chose for Maria. This feeling would be something that John Gardner would approve of because he wants his readers to feel and experience right along with the characters in the book because If it is true that we do look at characters in fictions as if they were real, and feel curious about what they will do when their safety is threatened or their wishes are opposed, then the only possible objection…must be that such a study is frivolous (Gardner 113).
As we go along through the novel, we feel for Maria because it seems as if she hasn’t been able to make decisions for herself due to her own confusion. She doesn’t want to abort the baby, but Carter pushes it on her. We know that she feels guilty about doing it because she had dreamed up scenarios like the plumber finding the “hacked pieces of human flesh” in her pipes. We know she is a bit insane because of her depression. We feel for her at the times when it seems her world comes crashing down like the time that…she drove as far as Romaine and then pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she has not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother…and she cried because something had just come through to her…because this was the day, the day the baby would have been born (Didion 140).
But she was distanced, depressed, unfeeling, and confused and readers could sense this from the language. This is what Gardner wants. We feel Maria’s isolation in the passage about being in Las Vegas where
She wore dark glasses…She spoke to no one. She did not gamble. She neither swam nor lay in the sun…All day, most of every night, she walked and drove…She thought about nothing…Her mind was a blank tape, imprinted daily with snatches of things overheard (168-69).
He wants us to feel for these characters as if they were real people who are actually experiencing these events. These passages Didion constructed are used to shape Maria’s personality.
Along with the feelings of depression that Didion associates with Maria are the images of isolation. It is frequently mentioned that Maria drives with no particular destination in mind. Chapter one is about Maria’s compulsion to drive on the freeway. She drives without purpose and it seems to comfort her:
Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images…and the irrevocability of what seemed already to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway (17).
Maria has no destination in her car just as she has no destination in her life. The author gives us this example without psychologizing Maria for us. The psychologizing and interpreting is the job of the reader in this case. Again towards the end of the novel, we find Maria driving towards the desert. Maria driving towards the desert brings up even more associations with Maria’s “deserted” personality. We associate the desert with feelings of barrenness and isolation where no living thing can survive. These associations are another key component in Gardner’s ideal character development. Gardner states that
Words conjure emotionally charged images in the reader’s mind, and when the words are put together in the proper way, with the proper rhythms…we have the queer experience of falling through the print on the page into something like a dream (Gardner 112).
Along with the use of associations, Gardner also has an appreciation for the use of metaphor. In this novel, the title of the book, Play It As It Lays, is closely linked with Maria’s final realization about life. On numerous occasions, there are references to card games or other comments using one or all of the words of the phrase, “play it as it lays.” The game being referred to is the game of life and Maria is holding the cards. At the beginning of the novel, Maria is still bewildered about life and says, “I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?” (Didion 8) The novel as a whole is essentially about Maria, her life’s uncertainties, and how she deals with it. The title acts as a metaphor for the book and the language only supports the metaphor. Its meaning changes for us throughout the book as we grow with Maria when “something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant” (41). Didion doesn’t want us to forget this metaphor and she makes sure of that by sprinkling it throughout her text by italicizing “as it was” (147) and “play it through” (54). By coming back to it time and time again allows a greater impact on the reader when she finally ends the novel with a reference to the metaphor. Gardner appreciates these language devices and says that “every metaphor conjures an inexpressible but felt background, ties the imagined to the fully experienced” (Gardner 68). Gass, too, has an appreciation for metaphor usage but for different reasons entirely. He believes that metaphors should be used to help the reader break out of the ordinary and see images in a different and unconventional way because he wants to “transform language, [to] disarm the almost insistent communicability of language” (A Debate 23). But the metaphor comparing Maria’s life to a game of cards supports Gardner’s theory and helps us to make a reasonable and accessible connection between the two.
As the novel continues, Maria becomes more confident in herself and this “game of life” she is playing. When BZ comes to her with the pills, he says, “‘You’re still playing…Some day you’ll wake up and you just won’t feel like playing anymore'” (Didion 211). Suddenly the tables have turned and Maria’s life isn’t the one the reader is concerned for anymore. For the first time, our worries are taken off of Maria and placed on BZ. She then becomes in control of herself and her own life. In her final monologue, she says directly to the reader: “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing” (213). This final realization and closure that Maria comes to is that life is going to treat you pretty terribly sometimes, but you’ve just got to keep playing with the cards you were dealt. This kind of closure is a characteristic of fiction that John Gardner would admire. Although he may not be satisfied completely with the morals in this novel, he would appreciate that the novel was leading up to this realization and that it had direction. Gardner argues that
If a novel is plotted, if you have the actualization of the potential that exists in a character in a certain situation, then the argument of the novel-the movement of the plot, the development of the characters in their response to problems-leads you through the novel (Gardner 25).
Then Didion does an interesting thing towards the end of the novel. While the majority of it is written in third-person limited, she suddenly gives us very short first-person monologues from Maria’s point-of-view. They are italicized for us to make sure we notice the change. It’s almost as if Maria is finally learning to think for herself. Throughout the novel she was lost and confused and had Carter telling her how to live her life. Suddenly, she is making some important realizations that Didion felt were more powerful coming directly from her instead of the third-person narrator. What would Gass and Gardner have to say about this addition? Gardner would think that it allows us that one step closer to the main character by being directly inside of her mind and hearing Maria’s true voice for the first time. It’s almost as if Maria herself were hearing her own voice for the first time as well. Because we feel like we are taking these big steps along with Maria, we feel more connected to her and Gardner supports a strong connection between reader and character. He wants us to feel as though we are in a continuous dream-like state throughout the story. If the “reader has been in a vivid and continuous dream, [he will be] living a virtual life, [he will be] in a virtual state” (Gardner 24). Gass would not acknowledge Gardner’s dream-like state to be a worthwhile part of fiction. But rather he would not appreciate these first-person monologues because they are too prone to allowing the reader to psychologize Maria. The beauty of the words and language is hardly a factor. But the purpose of this is to feel a deeper connection with Maria herself. We can see her progress as she begins to grow into a stronger person when she says, “It is no longer necessary for them even to write me. I know when someone is thinking of me. I learn to deal with this” (Didion 182). We begin to see a glimmer of Maria’s strength of character-something that has been lacking through the novel due to her mental state.
In Gass’ opinion, the language of this novel would not be his ideal for a number of different reasons. It is too narrowly focused on the characters instead of for the beauty of language itself. Although it does have a main character that the language seems to center on, the other characters in the novel and the emotional language play too important of a role to ignore. These are not the characteristics of Gass’ linguistic location. There is also a great deal of plot and purpose that becomes apparent to us in the ending. The majority of the language hopes to conjure up associations in the minds of the readers and creates a very life-like human being in Maria. Although upon first glance, the novel would appear to be one that would satisfy Gass, all of Gardner’s criteria for good character development are fulfilled in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
A Debate: William Gass and John Gardner (class handout)
Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays. Bantam Books: New York, 1970.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. Perseus Books: New York, 1978.