Play It As It Lays is a postmodern novel by Joan Didion. Very briefly, it tells the story of Maria, an ex-model who lives in Los Angeles. At the beginning of the novel, we meet her in a psychiatric hospital, after she’s had a mental breakdown. The rest of the novel follows her previous months and shows what led her to have that breakdown.
The novel shows life in Hollywood in a bad, but more realistic light than other novels of that era. Joan Didion, having herself been a model, has some very good insights on the lifestyle most artists and actors have. She portrays most characters as terrible people who could not care less of others surrounding them.
What I found most interesting about this novel was that it critiqued the very genre in which it was written. As a matter of fact, postmodernism is an intellectual stance that commends hyper skepticism and perceives the concept of ‘moral certainty’, or in other words, people being sure they are right, as the cause of most of the world’s problems. However, in Play It As It Lays, Didion is harshly critical of one of postmodernism’s central ideas, moral relativism. She argues that there is a true and objective morality, and she does so by creating and showcasing how horrible the world would be if there was no absolute morality. Concretely, she demonstrates it by portraying Maria’s friends and ex-husband has having an utter lack of empathy towards each other. By showcasing such a terrible reality, the novel illustrates the necessity for society to have an established morality.
In 1972, Frank Perry adapted the novel into a movie that starred Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. The screenplay was written by Didion herself. Here is its opening scene: