Play It as It Lays is an interesting title to me. As a golfer, I’ve long been familiar with the phrase “play it as it lies”. Going into the book, I didn’t know if the title was some kind of play on the golf phrase, something that a character said in the book, or just a phrase that I’d never heard before. As it turns out, it is the latter. Late in the book, the main character Maria recalls a time when her father was teaching her to play craps. His main piece of advice to her was that “it goes as it lays”. By this, he was telling her to always bet on a straight number instead of going for long-shots. A craps table has several different options to choose from that offer the player odds if they hit. These bets always massively favor the house; even more so than the standard bets on the table. As a quick example, a player may choose to bet that the dice will be rolled exactly 4 and 4. This would be called “8 the hard way”. This might pay off at something like 10/1. The odds are tempting, but Maria’s father was explaining to her that taking the number ANY way it comes, albeit at a smaller payoff, is actually the smarter play in the long run.
Interestingly, he turns the prudent play on the craps table into a much less reliable allegory for life. He tells her to never “do it the hard way”. Her father was a regular gambler who won and lost fortunes, cars, and small towns on his wagers. With his rambling lifestyle, he may have avoided some of the “hard” things that others experience, but I’d wager it was anything but easy. Gambling allegories and mystique frequently lose their romanticism when actually applied in life.
The title ended up making a lot of sense to me by the time I was done reading. The novel doesn’t necessarily follow a firm plot in a traditional way. It really is just like Joan Didion suddenly showed up at the door of a very complicated woman’s door in L.A., started documenting her life for a brief period, then left as quick as she came with no desire for resolution about anything that happened in front of her.
If you read any summaries about Play It as It Lays you’ll probably see words like “stark”, “ruthless”, “depressing”, and “dark” used at some point. I’ve read plenty of things that other people describe as depressing and sad. I’ve talked to a lot of people that are confused as to why anybody would choose to read something that leaves them in a melancholy mood. A simple answer is that sometimes life is shitty and if an author avoids that truth, the whole story isn’t being told. It’s really a lot more complicated than that; there is a whole discussion to be had about reading/watching things for entertainment vs. reading/watching to gain knowledge. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of those two, but the scale is a very wide one with a lot of nuance.
I say all of that because Play It as It Lays is definitely a nitty-gritty novel. If you’re looking for a cute story with an uplifting theme, look elsewhere. Honestly, it was even pretty dreary for my tastes. That being said, Didion is one hell of a writer. It may be one of the bleakest things I’ve ever read, pulling no punches and sticking to an excruciating depiction without the least bit of relief from the rawness. It is extremely hard to write something so draped in negativity without letting it seep into one’s reality. I admire Didion’s toughness, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one living with her while she labored this novel out.