Nicholas Rombes on Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays

Colin Winnette admires the writer Nicholas Rombes, so he asked Nicholas to suggest a book. Nicholas suggested Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. Then they talked about it.

Nick Rombes Two dollar radio

Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, out from Two Dollar Radio. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor. He is also the author of Ramones, from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. He works in Detroit, Michigan.

Colin Winnette: Will you provide a brief description (3 sentences or less) of this book? Something to ground anyone who hasn’t read it.

Nicholas Rombes: The novel is about 31-year old Maria Wyeth, who is confined in a psychiatric hospital. It is from her point of view, mostly, that we learn in fragments the details of the journey that led her here: her divorce from her filmmaker husband Carter Lang, the fragility of her four-year old daughter Kate, the abortion Carter forces her to have. While these plot details (and others) are important, it’s the incredibly glinty way the book unfolds, sentence by sentence, that makes it something you just can’t shrug off after reading.

CW: What caused you to pick up Play It As It Lays for the first time, and what was that initial read like for you?

Play It As It Lays

NR: So, my introduction to Didion had been through her essays, especially those in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Stupidly, I assumed her fiction was second-tier, and would be a sort of pale reflection of the strong, distanced, cutting voice that I and so many others admired in her “new journalism” writing. It just so happens that several years ago I was asked to teach a class at my university that I had not taught before: “Post-1945 Literature.” This is a huge and unwieldy time frame, not really bounded by anything other than years, and I struggled long and hard with how to frame and approach the period for the undergraduate students who would be enrolled. Beginning around a year before I taught the class I began some heavy-duty reading of fiction, poetry, and drama that I had missed in my undergrad and grad school days. Filling in the gaps, so to speak.

That’s how I came across Didion’s novel, published in 1970. How could this be, I wondered? Such a fantastically strange book, so alienating and warm at the same time. So full of excess truth that it shoots across the page more as a prophecy than a novel. And it seemed — and still seems — to do that thing that feels impossible: it speaks to readers who are not of the ilk of the characters. Here’s me, for instance, a guy born in the mid-1960s in the American Midwest, having never been far beyond my flat, black earth, corn field borders, and I’m feeling a very true and deep affinity with the California, late-1960s character Maria. How is this possible? For any of us? To transcend all the well-intentioned, stupid categories that we erect between ourselves?

So this book, this unexpected miracle, comes into my life and messes it up. The flatness of the prose: “’The word on Carter’s dailies is sensational,”’ the agent said.” Lines like this — true and cold and direct — alongside such intense moments of introspection and vulnerable truth: “He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination.”

CW: How did it mess up your life?

NR: I should say, rather than messed up, the novel reflected, in a distorted way the messed-up-ness of my life at that time. I don’t want to get too personal, but the foundations of what I valued and believed in came under some serious and real assault and I had that feeling of free falling, like you do as a kid when you stand straight, shut your eyes, and then fall back into someone’s arms, trusting that they will catch you. What caught me at the end of that fall happened to be this novel. I fell into its arms, as corny as that may sound, and found there a distorted reflection of my own disordered world. Most of the time I turn to novels or poetry or movie to escape the tyranny of my own habits of thought, but Play It As It Lays was different. Here was something that seemed to be a secret blueprint of another person’s — Maria’s — panic. Her efforts to suppress and disguise that panic are, for me, the heart of the book.

CW: How do you go about teaching a book that’s had this effect on you? Or even one that’s so new to you?

NR: It’s definitely an act of collaboration with the class, and when it’s working right the spirit of the class is one of almost secret collaboration. How does this happen? I’m not sure. If I could bottle it, I would. When the class clicks and feels right teaching is effortless and the classroom becomes a space where the meaning of the novel is scaffolded and constructed right there before our eyes. It’s a strange and frightening and thrilling vibe, to create with students, through discussion and conversation, something brand new: a way of talking about the novel that didn’t come into existence until the class discussion. It’s like that moment in Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral,” when the narrator and the blind man put their hands together to draw the cathedral, and something happens. An act of shared creation, pure creation. I’m sorry if this sounds a little melodramatic.

In the case of Play It As It Lays I was very open with the students and told them that I selected it not because I had anything profound to say about it, but the opposite: it left me baffled. The most difficult part of teaching for me is striking that balance between interpretation and the demystification that comes with that, and trying to preserve the essential aura and mystery of whatever text it is that we’re studying. Freud wrote about the “navel” of a dream — the unplumbable, unknowable part that eludes all efforts at interpretation. How to hold onto that mystery while at the same time honoring the duty, as a professor, to guide students through the process of dismantling a text so as to interpret it?

CW: This book has (at least) four narrators (Maria, Carter, Helenne, and an omniscient close-third that follows Maria), but formally it’s incredibly a-symmetrical. So much so that the first person chapters could almost be considered a kind of overture. What did you make of this front-loading of narrative voices? How does it affect your reading/experience of the book?

NR: There’s a Paris Review interview from 1978 where Didion addresses the multiple narrative voices. In part, she says:

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. I was scared. Actually, I don’t mind the way it worked out. The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing. I don’t think I’d do it again, but it was a solution to that particular set of problems. There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.

I love how she says, “you go with what you’ve got,” which echoes the book’s Play It As It Lays title. And just her openness and honesty about that moment of terror you experience as a writer, when suddenly you see something in the manuscript you hadn’t seen and you’re confronted with a choice: to continue or to quit, to “not write a book at all.” It’s stark and true and frightening, the way she puts it.

Part of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out how to navigate through these narrative voices. The first three sections are each narrated by a different character, beginning with Maria, and clearly titled as so. But then, suddenly, about 15 pages in, we’re met with a new voice, in the third person: “In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway.” It’s shocking, the abruptness of this switch from first to third person, and it forces you to rearrange the novel as you go. In a way, now thinking about it with the book open before me, what we do as readers is what we see Maria doing in that third person section, where she drives the same intricate stretch of freeway again and again 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 breaking or losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.”

That’s how I felt — and still feel — reading the novel. Like there’s a way to access it just right, seamlessly, and it’s on those occasions that the novel reads not jaggedly or roughly, but smoothly.

CW: What relates to that smooth access? How does a reader prepare for it? Or can you?

NR: I take my cue from the novel’s opening lines: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Right there, right off the bat, is that jaggedness, that roughness, that contradiction. In disavowing the question about Iago and evil, Maria in fact has to ask it. She has to put the question out there. So the book begins with the very thing Maria says she “never” does: asks a question about Iago and evil. And that sets up the entire book, really. There are no reasons, there are no answers, Maria says. The first few times I read the book I ignored that and all I looked for was reasons, and those were the times that it seemed jagged.

But if you set that aside (and for me that’s really hard) and read the book following Maria’s method — that is, if you read it as it lays, so to speak, rather than as a book of reasons for Maria’s actions — then it clicks, somehow, like it does for Maria when she smoothly merges her car through four lanes of L.A. traffic without a glitch.

CW: For me, reading this book for the first time was like having a bad dream. Not a nightmare, necessarily, but one of those dreams where everything just feels kind of haunted and tender. There are graphic moments, but for the most part the brutality of it is much more subtle, dull, like someone pushing into a bruise on your arm.

NR: That’s a beautiful way to put it. There’s a line in the book that goes: “By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” I don’t know of any other novel that captures with such low-grade intensity the worrying wonder of this boundary. Your phrase “haunted and tender” feels exactly right, and I think part of this goes back to the book’s structural cadence and rhythm, the way that it glides us in and out of Maria’s head, because Maria is haunted. Near the very end of the novel, right before his overdose/suicide, BZ tells Maria that “we’ve been out there where nothing is.” Maria seems to be haunted by that sense of nothing, the fact that we’re always rubbing up against it.

And yet that nothingness is also a comfort. At several points throughout the book we’re told that Maria has slept without dreaming. This seems — in the moral universe of the book — to be a good thing, a relief almost. A relief from the constant drive to make meaning, to square things up, to find patterns in everything, to structure reality so that it suggests the opposite of nothing. When Maria sleeps without dreaming she’s finally free from the burdens of all that.

CW: Maria says, “I know what nothing means, and I keep on playing.” The idea of “you go with what you’ve got” takes on a whole new meaning when “what you’ve got” is…nothing. It complicates the gambling analogy mixed into the idea of “play it as it lays,” because when you’re gambling you can’t play with nothing. In life, that’s not the case.

NR: Yes, and I think the answer in response to Maria’s call of nothingness is her daughter Kate. “The only problem is Kate. I want Kate,” she says near the end, and it’s interesting that she calls Kate a “problem.” But it’s the sort of problem you want to have. Maria says she used to ask questions, and the answer to them is “nothing” and that now that she knows that’s the answer, she can look towards a future with Kate. It’s really amazing to me how large Kate looms in the book even though she’s entirely off screen, so to speak. She’s not there (nothing) and yet she is, around the edges of all of Maria’s thought. She’s like a magnet at the end of the book, and all the words are metal, and they’re all pulled toward her.

And I also think the text layout and design of the book works around this nothingness, too. The enormous amount of white space on some pages. The blankness of the pages, they way it assembles itself around the block prose. Several of the chapters or sections are only a few lines long, isolated, surrounded by nothing. And that encourages a certain way of reading, maybe.

CW: Maybe part of what’s being highlighted is the distinction between absence and nothing. Kate’s absent, which has a certain kind of presence embedded within it (the magnet). Whereas, Maria’s other child is truly gone (I’m willing to make an assumption about the book’s attitude toward the afterlife here). Where that child once was, there is nothing.

NR: This is weird, but one of the epigraphs for the Laing novel (The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, Two Dollar Radio 2014) comes from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.” Not to get all theory-ish, but Kristeva says that the abject draws us “toward the place where meaning collapses.” I’d say that the abject — along with absence and nothing — is the third leg of Play It As It Lays, and yet here is the paradox, the beautiful paradox: in both Kristeva’s and Didion’s text, the horror of the abject is rendered in such electric, astonishing prose that it achieves a level of real glory. In other words, the aestheticization of the abject (in all its horror) transforms it into something of beauty. I love that contradiction, and it keeps me up sometimes at night.

CW: I checked out the 2005 FSG paperback version from the library, which has a kind of Bret Easton Ellis-ish cover with a female’s torso supine on a window sill of what might be a hotel room or other equally non-descript, impersonal space. The original cover had the coiled black snake. These are slightly different, though related, takes on the “Lays” in the title, I think. Let’s talk about rattlesnakes in the book. Are they a reminder that the “roll with the punches” undertone of “Play as it Lays” (as a phrase) is a complicated, even dangerous way of living? It involves real risk. To mess with a rattlesnake at rest is potentially deadly. A hummingbird, however…

NR: That hummingbird! “Everything goes,” Maria says, “I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now.” A hummingbird’s wings move so fast they appear to be still; so much energy, so much motion just to stay in one place, perfectly still. I obsess over book covers and as a class we researched different versions. The 2005 edition — which was the one we read as a class — features a cover photograph, the one you describe, by Julia Fullerton-Batten. This was my first introduction to her work, which reminds me of the cinematic photographs of Gregory Crewdson, although now when I look at his work it’s the other way around: his images remind me of hers. I think we discovered that that photograph (cropped for the book cover) was from her series Teenage Stories.

To keep with the gambling analogy, a book cover is such a tell. The 2005 cover reminds me somehow of that sort of sad, post 9–11, Sofia Coppola feel, especially the vibe of Lost in Translation, which came out in 2003. Then there’s the starkness of the black coiled snake on the white background of the 1970 first edition, as you mention. I can’t help but wonder how the novel would read differently based on which of the multiple editions you’ve got. It’s her hands that get me in cover photograph of the 2005 edition, what they’re covering on the implied Maria, the space where her loss is.

CW: Can you leave us with a quote from the book? Something that feels either emblematic of the book as a whole, or that holds particular meaning for you?

NR: For all the seriousness of what the book’s about — loneliness, suicide, moral panic, and just the general feeling of blank desperation — it’s also a very funny novel. Maria’s ex-husband, Carter Lang, is a film director, and there’s a scene where she’s in an elevator with an actor and his agent, who smiles at Maria and says, “The word on Carter’s dailies is sensational.” As if, right? Like what’s she supposed to say? “Sensational.” What a word! Who talks like that? We’re with Maria in that moment, completely with her. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so pressed-in-close to a character as I feel with Maria.

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