The Problem with Joan Didion’s ‘Good Taste’ in ‘Play It As It Lays’
The novel ‘Play It As It Lays’ is filled with brand names, but all those Pucci blouses and chic white clothes are just a way to stay in control.
Joan Didion in 1972. Photograph by Henry Clarke for Vogue via Getty Images.
Clothes Before Prose is a column that explores the use of fashion in some of our favorite novels. This week, we explore the way Joan Didion maintains control through brand names and the “right” jewelry.
Shalimar is a Guerlain perfume. Created in the ’20s and branded as one of the original “oriental” scents—the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore in Pakistan are its namesake—it remains, according to ultimate French style ingenue Ines de la Fressange, “very successful.” The online perfume encyclopedia Fragrantica notes that “flappers of course loved it to bits and helped cement its ‘bad girl’ reputation.” Rita Hayworth, Brigitte Bardot, and Bianca Jagger are all noted Shalimar wearers.
“Why should Shalimar attract kraits,” Joan Didion writes on the first page of her 1970 novel, Play It As It Lays, in a list of questions her narrator, an actress named Maria Wyeth, would never ask, a statement that contains a particularly Didion combination of taste and dread. Perfume, like jeans or a shirt, is far too vague a concept for Didion; it must be Shalimar, Levis, or Pucci. And kraits, with suitable foreboding, are one of the “big four” venomous snakes—Didion even has good taste in snakes.
Play It As It Lays charts Maria’s “menopausal depression” as her soon-to-be ex-husband, Carter, puts it (she’s 36). Residing somewhere out beyond Hollywood, both literally and figuratively, she watches the roles dry up and disengages from empty acquaintanceships while her young daughter, Kate, is kept in a hospital for vague but ominous sounding “treatment.”
Maria, pronounced Mar-eye-ah, as in Mariah Carey, surrounds herself not merely with things but with expressions of her taste: She cruises the freeways of Los Angeles, for example, in a banana yellow Corvette. She is well-versed in “the marginal distinctions,” as Didion puts it, of good taste, a weary connoisseurship honed through having seen it all. “She understood, for example, about shoes, and could always distinguish among the right bracelet and the amusing impersonation of the right bracelet and the bracelet that was merely a witless copy.” This is about applying existing knowledge, intel that most people aren’t privy to: when Maria describes a group of women, with “their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint,” it’s not necessary to know what length, or what tint, to understand how the women looked. It’s the kind of cool reassurance with which they carried themselves.
Writing in The New York Times in 1976, Didion described how she’d based Maria on “a picture from her mind”: “a young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning.” Didion recognized her as a “minor actress,” who she saw around Los Angeles in “places like Sax” and “once in a gynecologist’s office.” Places like Sax. With a sweep of the word “minor” Didion confines the actress to being low-rent, and the white of her halter dress comes to read as cheap and sleaze-adjacent in the novel: Maria speaks with her lech neighbor, Larry Kulik, as he distractedly watches a “very young girl in a white halter dress” at his party. Maria’s breakdown is triggered in part by an abortion her husband forces her to have (it’s not his child), and the man who drives her to the arranged appointment is clad in ”white duck pants and a white sports shirt”—clothing designed for manual labor, made ironic, even distasteful—by its color.
Fashion is generally taken to be an expression of identity, but in Play It As It Lays, people’s identities literally are the brands and styles they wear. There are the “women with the silk Pucci shirts and the periodically tightened eye lines.” Efficient and polished, and always in their “middle forties,” they holiday and spa frequently and own pairs of investment shoes. They are distinct from the “women with long hand crafted earrings,” willowy types with bohemian tendencies that manifest as a commitment to linen and farmer’s markets (today, they may have a soft spot for Goop). A “silver medallion against a chest” tells us everything we need to know about the guy wearing it: a predisposition to sleaze paired with the confidence of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights.
And to wear the “right” thing is to be in control. A “silk shirt and tinted glasses and long streaked hair and a new square emerald” can make Helene, who, along with her husband BZ, is something like a friend of Maria’s, seem “invincible” to Maria, who conversely, by Helene’s description, “looks spectral.” Clothes can be a way of keeping it together, or at least appearing to; although it’s the morning of Maria’s divorce, that’s no excuse, as Helene puts it, to “look like hell.” Early on in the novel, Maria is in the habit of being on the freeway by 10 am each morning to drive to nowhere. When she comes home in the evening, she sleeps out by the pool under beach towels, chosen for the fact they make sleeping outside seem less official, and sleeping outside could be “construed as the first step toward something unnameable.” Still, she “dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, [in] a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator.” It doesn’t matter if you’re not in touch with reality so long as you’re dressed like you are.
Which brings us to the author herself. No assessment of clothes in Didion’s work could leave out the writer’s own reputation as a fashion icon: the packing list, the Gap and Celine ads, and her ubiquitous dark sunglasses have all secured her position as a “mental shortcut” as Haley Mlotek put it, for minimal, Phoebe Philo (white) chic. But it is, after all, somewhat of its time, as Patricia Lockwood recently pondered for The London Review of Books: “How much can we really rely on someone who loved the Doors?” Good taste courses through Didion’s writing—not merely the right bracelet and the right car, but the right word, the right character, the right repetition of the right phrase. Didion’s mastery is that she registers these aesthetic choices, calibrating precisely what they signify—an acute chronicler of “good taste,” rather than possessor of her own.