Perspective and Alienation in the Novel "Play It as It Lays" by Joan Didion
This article is part of a series exploring the theme of alienation within contemporary literature. The series focuses not only on the theme itself, but on the way that the author uses perspective, or point of view, to explore, control, and mediate the sense of disconnect at work. To read more about alienation in recent fiction in general, please visit:
Introduction to Play It as It Lays
Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays takes place largely in Hollywood in the late 1960’s, and explores the pathos of a disconnected heroine named Maria. Maria is comes across as an extremely alienated character, not by trauma, as seen in works like Toni Morrison's Beloved, but by her own pathologically apathetic nature. This is not to say that devastating things have not happened to Maria, (they have), it is simply that trauma is not the root of her disaffectedness. Indeed it never really becomes clear what makes Maria so disconnected from the world around her. The reader never gets much of an explanation or insight into Maria's character. She simply is the way she is. At the beginning of the story, Maria states:
“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask....Nothing applies."
Maria is the type that never questions, simply because she does not care. Similarly, she is also a character to whom the rules do not apply. Iago is Shakespeare's most notorious villain, while Maria is only a troubled young woman, yet there is little difference between the two, as a sense of right and wrong have seem to have all but disappeared for both.
Choice of Point of View
This type of apathy without any conceivable sense of morality is problematic for the reader, as Maria comes across as an unsympathetic character, one that readers have difficulty empathizing with or relating to. There is perhaps an instinctual desire to want to parent or comfort her, yet by nature her alienation is alienating to the reader, somewhat off-putting on an instinctual level.
David Thompson writes in the novel's Introduction, “There is disgust in Play It as It Lays, despite every assertion that nothing applies.…And that’s where the book becomes problematic, but also endlessly absorbing." Given this fact, that the disgust factor is "problematic" the issue of point of view becomes a large consideration.
Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft quotes Carol Bly saying: “It [point of view] divides master from apprentice.” Burroway also adds that it is “a slippery concept…aside from significant detail, there is no more important skill for a writer to grasp."
Didion herself discussed the difficulty she ran into in assigning a point of view to the work in an interview:
I wanted to make it all first-person, but I wasn’t good enough to maintain a first….So I began playing with a close third person, just to get something down. By a “close third” I mean not an omniscient third but a third very close to the mind of the character. Suddenly one night I realized that I had some first person and some third person and that I was going to have to go with both, or just not write a book at all.
Didion’s choice in point of view is what creates a sense of tension between the problematic and absorbing. We are similarly reviled and fascinated by Maria, the tension is what sustains the interest despite these competing variables.
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Using POV to Counterbalance Alienation
The few times that we are given Maria’s first person account, it is to reiterate that which we are introduced to in the initial chapter, which is also first-person, that nothing applies to her, in that she cares about little, and sees no reason or motivation behind anything.
“Carter and Helen still believe in cause-and-effect,” says Maria. She later continues, “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing." Maria exists in a state of alterity from her surroundings. “I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day,” says Maria.
The close third-person serves counterbalance to the sense of removal that we get between Maria and the rest of the world that she floats through as if in a dream. The reader is pulled in very closely to Maria’s somewhat disjointed experience of reality, in contrast to Maria herself being very distanced from her world.
The overall narration is a portrait of the already disconnected Maria becoming gradually unstrung. “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing." Playing, yes, but with something less than a full deck of cards. As in Morrison's Beloved the narrative is fragmented, the events revealed in brief snippets of information, quick flashes needing to be pieced together. Also like Beloved, the primary character is incapable of providing a sense of cohesion to the fragmentation; she is given her moments to attempt this, but largely kept at arms length, allowing the flashes to coalesce on their own.
More on Alienation and Perspective in Contemporary Fiction
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 2nd Ed. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007. Print.
Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays. 1970. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. Print.