Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970)

Old favourites: Rob Doyle on a novel of violent men and glazed, anaesthetised women

Joan Didion: her cool, slant, mysterious prose style has aged well. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty

Joan Didion: her cool, slant, mysterious prose style has aged well. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty

 

Lo and behold, the 1960s seem interesting again. As we witness the implosion of the American empire – with orgasmic schadenfreude or appalled concern, depending on how black and bitter and sick of this worldwide American life our hearts have grown – that prior period of vast cultural mutation appears as a warped lysergic montage rolling to a Lana del Rey soundtrack, in which we squintingly perceive some message about what is unfurling now. Joan Didion’s celebrated essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, chronicled the era from the jangled viewpoint of a conservative woman repelled and fascinated by the dark Dionysian energies unleashed by an orgiastic new culture.

In those essays, as in Didion’s superb novel of LA desolation Play It As It Lays, motive and causality have disappeared from human affairs: terror and chaos unfold in a void as pristine and meaningless as the Californian desert. Set among the vampires and spectres of the movie business, Play It As It Lays isn’t really a plot novel. Maria, a 31-year-old actress in career decline, has an abortion, divorces her film-director husband, and begins to psychically disintegrate.

Nihilistic dread

Atmosphere is everything – the cool, slant, mysterious prose style has aged well. The swimming pools and beach houses of Didion’s California define a zone of nihilistic dread – “the dead still centre of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing” – where men are cold and violent, women glazed and anaesthetised. Maria drives aimlessly along the freeways, firing a pistol at road signs. At her nadir, she winds up in Las Vegas, where she wanders for several lost weeks.

The tone of muffled panic and bleak sedation is gradually submerged by images of horror: a nuclear test bomb detonates beneath the desert; children burn to death in a locked car, “the little faces, helpless screams”. In this glaring American vacuum, explanations are scarce and hollow figures gesture without significance: “She sat on the rattan chaise in the hot October twilight and watched BZ throw the ice cubes from his drink one by one into the swimming pool.”

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