Hollywood sign and Sunset Blvd signsI shot this photo in southern California a few years ago. Serendipitously—I am an indifferent photographer—it captures both sides of the L.A. coin: the ubiquitous smog and heat and traffic, and the vitality and breeziness and glamour symbolized by the Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard signs. What a joy it was to read and love a novel set in Hollywood, affording me the opportunity to use this photo on my blog!

Er, but perhaps joy is not quite the word to describe this particular reading experience. The novel in question begins troublingly, with these words:

“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

(In case you’re not brushed up on your Shakespeare: Iago, from the play Othello, is the dude people shuddered at before we had Hitler to fill that role.)

Okay, so the protagonist prefers not to think about Iago. But why not? Why, I wondered, does the protagonist of Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion shy away from inquiring into the nature of evil? Does it have to do her “playing it as it lays”—that is, accepting the way things are without complaint? Perhaps, I thought, I should continue reading to try to sort all this out; and perhaps, as a bonus, things will get a little more upbeat!

But the novel proceeds in this troubling vein: never once letting up on the reader. There’s no coming up for air ’round here, folks. As one reviewer put it, “Play It As It Lays isn’t for pussies.” Indeed, one day I was reading the book in a public place—at a wine bar, surrounded by friends—and had to stifle sobs.

And yet, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Published in 1970, it offers a brilliant depiction of the disintegration of a young woman’s life, against the backdrop of Hollywood culture in the 1960s. The writing is gorgeous, haunting, spare, . . . and perplexing in a way that surreptitiously slips into profundity.

Next time you’re in southern California, I suggest you read it on the beach.

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