Ben Smithgall

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Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





Play It as It Lays

By Joan Didion

Finished reading on October 21, 2019

It was interesting to read Play It as It Lays right after finishing Nixonland, since what Didion appears to be after here is an examination of the bleak hihilism of the late 60s and early 70s in American culture. There is interesting dualisms in Didion’s sparse prose, but I ultimately couldn’t connect.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes about how to live in and confront an absurd world. The ultimate question of philosophy, Camus says, is to consider suicide: does the realization of the absurd require it? Ultimately:

The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Interestingly enough, one Camus’ “absurd men” is an actor, who compresses the absurdity of life down into the hours required to perform a play, or in the case of Maria, a film. Maria pushes this absurd character further: what happens when you have an actor that cannot find work? She turns to driving:

Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.

Until eventually, that isn’t enough:

On the way back into the city the traffic was heavy and the hot wind blew sand through the windows and the radio got on her nerves and after that Maria did not go back to the freeway except as a way of getting somewhere.

Of course, the irony here is that Maria, out of work and alone, has nowhere to get. This nothing radiates outward from Maria, eventually capturing all of her interactions and relationships with other characters. Despite this, though, she keeps on living, just as her father teaches her to read the craps table and play it as it lays. In this, Maria is something of an absurd hero.