Maria, rider on the storm

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion (1970). French title: Maria avec et sans rien. Translated by Jean Rosenthal.

Preamble: I read this with Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal and after being caught by Didion’s prose and narration in Run River and after reading Max’s excellent review of Play it as it Lays.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells.

Didion_playThe book opens with Maria speaking. She’s in a psychiatric ward and was put there after she killed someone named BZ. She was married to Carter, a film director. Then Helene speaks about visiting her, for BZ’s and Carter’s sake. Then Carter speaks about visiting her, for his own sake.

After these three short chapters, the novella is mostly a third person narrative, all seen from Maria’s point of view. Sometimes, short chapters in italic are told by Maria in the first person, like a voiceover in a film. Play it as it Lays is a succession of scenes that slowly build a puzzle and bring us to see when Maria killed BZ. It also gives us a view of her state-of-mind, of her behavior and of the crowd she spends her time with, mostly people from the film industry.

The story’s background is made of mental health issues, death, sex and the combination of the two, abortion. (We’re in 1970. For my generation the combination of sex and death would be AIDS). Maria is a strange character. She’s an actress who has a relative success in one of Carter’s first movies. She’s unable to work now. I don’t know how to qualify her or to picture her. She’s drifting, riding the storm of life with the help of barbiturates, alcohol and a massive dose of feigned indifference. She has trouble interacting with people. She’s plagued with guilt. A character says she has a very self-destructive personality structure, which sounds the perfect description for me. She’s silent, apparently indifferent, unreachable. She has compulsive behaviors, like when she drives aimlessly the roads of California. She was probably fragile already but her mental health went downhill after she confessed to Carter that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Carter reacted badly and gave her the contact information of a doctor who would perform an abortion. In the USA, abortion was legalized in 1973 (1975 in France). So it means that Maria does something illegal in a frightening place without medical security, without support and without being able to talk about it. And she wanted to keep the child. This episode changes her and her appetite for life.

Maria and Carter’s relationship is complicated. They can’t communicate and Carter picks fight just to get a reaction from Maria, to see if she’s still alive, still interested in life enough to get angry. They are both sleeping with other people and yet have a deep bond.

Maria has common points with Lily and Martha from Run River, written in 1963. She seems like the combination of the two. Carter resembles Everett, Lily’s husband and Martha’s brother. There’s a wall between Maria and Carter just as there is one between Everett and Lily. In both books, the main female character cheats on her husband for a reason the reader doesn’t quite understand. She doesn’t fall in love with someone else. It’s not really just for the sex. It seems more like an activity she engages in out of boredom or maybe to feel connected to someone else.

Maria has mental health issues but I won’t venture into foreign territories and try to qualify her illness. She’s obsessed with snakes and they obviously represent death and sex. Her mother died after she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Snakes are also part of the Californian fauna. They’re sneaky, unpredictable and possibly lethal.

Play it as it Lays left me with a head full of images. Images of roads in California. The complicated knot of highways in Los Angeles, roads through the Mojave Desert, roads in the desert around Las Vegas, roads in the Death Valley. Images of Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.

Images of paintings by Edward Hopper, just as when I read Run River.


SHE SAT IN THE MOTEL in the late afternoon light looking out at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and the moon. 

It also left me with Riders on the Storm by The Doors buzzing in my head because of the lyrics…

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm,

into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown

like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan,

Riders on the storm

and with The End by the Doors and its haunting music with a back sound that reminded me of rattlesnakes and the lyrics mention snakes and highways

There’s danger on the edge of town,

ride the king’s highway.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine;

ride the highway west, baby.

Ride the snake, ride the snake

to the lake, the ancient lake.

The snake is long, seven miles;

ride the snake, he’s old

and his skin is cold

It’s probably normal to have all these images and soundtrack since Play it as it Lays is very cinematographic and might have even been written for the cinema. It was made into a film released in 1972, shortly after the book was published and Didion herself wrote the scenario.

It also left me breathless and frustrated. I didn’t figure out why things happened that way. I never really understood the undercurrent between the characters. It left me hungry for details, background information, reasons why. It reminded me of novels by Marguerite Duras. I felt like spying on the characters and seeing fragments of their lives, enough to see a picture but not enough to understand them. Didion’s visual and concise style enforces that feeling. We have no way to understand Maria. Hell, she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t act, she reacts, on instinct. Helene says she’s selfish and she certainly appears to be when she forgets to call Carter when one of his films is released or fails to go and see it. To me, she seemed more wrapped in herself than selfish, too ill to do anything else but survive. You need to have your own basics covered to be able to reach out to someone else. Maria doesn’t have that and therefore she’s unable to reach out. And nobody really understands it that way.

Didion may try to tell us that sometimes things happen for no reason, that it’s useless to try to decipher the whys behind everything.

  1. May 20, 2015 at 6:53 am

    What a beautiful, in-depth review – thank you. I really need to read more Joan Didion – everything I’ve read of hers so far, I have loved. And yet I can understand your frustration with a character that appears to be so enigmatic.


    • May 20, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks Marina. If you want to read Didion’s fiction, perhaps it’s better to start by Run River. It’s interesting to have read it before reading Play it as it Lays.


  2. May 20, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Brilliant review, Emma. You’ve thought about the book very deeply and gone into several different aspects of the story. (I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of this one!) I agree, it’s difficult to understand Maria and figure her out as a character partly because she doesn’t know herself, but it’s also down to the fractured nature of the narrative. There are so many interruptions in the story…it’s almost like a series of shards.

    I love how you’ve referenced The Doors in your review; those lyrics are spot-on.


    • May 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I think your review is brilliant as it really shows Maria’s fragility. She’s lost. She’s been lost for a long time.

      Terrible events have come into her life. She’s always lacked stability as a child. Her mother’s death is horrible. She was with a toxic guy in NY. Carter is not exactly tender and loving. The abortion part is awful, really difficult to read for a woman as it’s impossible not to relate.
      She has reasons to be shattered.

      I also wondered what happened to Kate. I wondered if she was born that way and that it killed Maria and Carter’s couple even more or if something happened to her later. I wondered if Maria felt guilty about Kate. Do you think she was born before or after the abortion? It’s hard to tell.


      • May 20, 2015 at 6:20 pm

        Yes, so many terrible things have happened, so much pain…


        I might be completely wrong about this, but I got the distinct impression that Kate was born before Maria’s abortion. It is difficult to tell though as the timeline is a quite fluid which doesn’t make it easy to pinpoint exactly where we are in the sequence of events. Again, it’s not clear, but I got the feeling Kate was born that way. (I even wondered if Carter had knocked Maria about while she was carrying Kate and whether that may have led to Kate’s condition – that’s just a hypothesis though.) Maria and Carter’s relationship felt doomed from the start. It would have been interesting to hear a bit more about the early years of their relationship, but some of those gaps in the narrative make the novel even more intriguing. In some ways, I wonder if they add to the intensity and sharpen the impact of the things we do get to see?


        • May 24, 2015 at 5:26 pm

          You’re probably right, Kate must have been born before the abortion, I don’t see Maria and Carter having a child after that. But then, where was Kate while Maria was wandering around and sleeping with someone else?

          Yes, it would have been nice to hear a bit more about the early stage of Carter’s and Maria’s relationship.

          The gaps in the narrative may make things more real. In real life, you never know everything about someone. You catch them at some point in their life and witness things but you rarely have them tell you very private things.
          As a reader, we enter into Maria’s life and we learn some of her story but she doesn’t feel like going back to her early relationship with Carter. We can’t ask questions, just like in real life sometimes you don’t get to ask some questions even if you’re curious about something because these questions are rude or you don’t feel comfortable asking them. I don’t know if I’m clear.


          • June 7, 2015 at 8:59 am

            Yes, I know what you mean. Two months on and I’m still thinking about Maria and some of the images from this novel. A haunting story…


  3. May 20, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Great commentary on this one Emma.

    I know the feeling one gets when reading a book and feeling the need to know more about characters and their interrelationships.

    Though it might be done for artistic reasons I find it to be frustrating.

    Nevertheless this book sounds very good.


    • May 24, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      We readers are curious. We’d like to know everything about the characters but we can’t. It
      We just have to use our imagination.
      That’s where readalongs and book clubs are nice: you can share ideas about how you imagined the characters and confront your views about how you filled the gaps in your mind.

      It’s an excellent book. Mind-blowing style as well.


  4. May 20, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    I like your points on Maria and Carter’s relationship, how he provokes just to get a response. I think that must be right. Maria is in some ways so closed off, unreachable as you say, Carter’s not a particularly nice guy as the abortion episode shows but that blank seeming indifference must be intensely frustrating.

    You’re absolutely right on the headful of images. For me this is an intensely imagistic novel (I think I just made that word up). When I picture it I picture not so much words or characters, but spaces, stretches of road.

    Nice choice of Hopper painting. My god he can be melancholy.


    • May 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm

      I think Carter doesn’t understand Maria.

      She’s not talkative and they are not a couple who talks through issues. He reacted very badly about the pregnancy and the abortion episode is awful. I wonder if he reacted that way because she was so careless (after all the pill existed at the time) or because she cheated on him with someone she didn’t even like.

      What did you think about Carter’s film with Maria in it? I thought it gave an impression of being a highbrow film, incomprehensible for common mortals but highly praised by the cinema crowd. (Like the last play I saw: it was by Harold Pinter. I have no clue what it was about)

      Hopper’s paintings are full of melancholy. The characters always seem a little off, a little sad, a little out-of-place. They don’t seem to know their place in the world, just like Maria.
      Hopper’s paintings are too “East Coast” to illustrate Play it as it Lays but this one fit the vibe that I got from Maria.


      • May 26, 2015 at 10:42 am

        I tend to like critics’ films more than crowd films, to the extent that’s a real distinction (which I think it often isn’t). Here though my impression wasn’t that the film was good but difficult and perhaps a little wilfully artistic, heavily stylised but without perhaps a point to make. In other words it sounded to me technically effective but limited, but of course we only know how others received it.

        I agree he doesn’t understand her. They don’t understand each other, or even make serious attempts to,

        Pinter, eh, his work has never hugely interested me.


        • May 26, 2015 at 10:16 pm

          I see you had the same impression as me. Carter’s film sounded mannered. It seemed all about artistic purpose and nothing about telling a story.

          Re-Pinter. No rush to see Ashes to Ashes. Not even Carole Bouquet could save it.


  5. May 21, 2015 at 1:51 am

    I think I would be frustrated by this. Did you like it?


    • May 24, 2015 at 5:47 pm

      I liked it from a literary point of view. I admire the style, the story, the way it is done. It’s worth reading just for the atmosphere in California and Nevada.

      I didn’t like the characters so my heart wasn’t into it as much as it is when I like one or several characters.


  6. May 21, 2015 at 7:24 am

    This is definitely a book for me: you’re referencing Hopper and Riders On The Storm got me hooked. That quote from the motel room coupled with the unexplained behaviors of mar-eye-ah is something I enjoy reading. Maybe because the protagonist is a woman; I do miss something similar to Le Marin de Gibraltar; experimental and opaque but still readable


    • May 24, 2015 at 5:51 pm

      I think you’d like it.
      So you like The Doors?


      • May 24, 2015 at 5:53 pm

        Before I discovered Leonard Cohen, I’d listen to The Doors repeatedly. Riders On The Storm was my favorite song for years


        • May 24, 2015 at 6:03 pm

          I love The Doors. My favourite one is Moonlight Drive.

          Liked by 1 person

        • May 24, 2015 at 6:08 pm

          PS : Speaking of Leonard Cohen, have you heard Johnny Cash’s version of Bird on a Wire?


          • May 24, 2015 at 6:09 pm

            No never, to be honest I don’t know Johnny Cash at all, but I can listen to Bird on a Wire in any form, so I’ll Youtube it now.


  7. May 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    As I noted in response to Jacqui’s review, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this. But I like how you help revive for me an aspect of the novel I remember liking very much, the way it calls to mind so many extraneous images and suggests so much else going on off in the margins. Riders on the Storm – what a terrific soundtrack that would be! (I have not seen the film). One difficulty with Play It As It Lays may be its very L.A.-centric universe. The abortion, for instance, would certainly resonate with Angelenos around long enough to remember the industry of dangerous abortion “clinics” just over the border, and the tension of the weird relationship of the city with the film world suffuses the novel. Both of your reviews have me wanting to read the novel again.


    • May 24, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      It is a magnificent book for its images and it’s really rooted in its time without even referring to any specific event. (there aren’t any references to political or social events) But still, it feels like the end of the 60s. It sounds like The Doors, I can’t explain it properly. It’s certainly because of the snake sound in The End. It’s probably also linked to the lyrics. Morrison’s poetry is also full of images.

      Thanks for the info about LA. Honestly, here in Europe we’ve seen so many films, TV series set in LA and in California in general that it’s familiar.


  1. May 20, 2015 at 8:24 am
  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm

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