Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
The novel begins with an introspective mind monologue by the 31-year-old Maria Wyeth, followed by short reminiscences of her friend Helene, and ex-husband, film director Carter Lang. The further narration is conducted from a third-person perspective in eighty-four chapters of terse, controlled and highly visual prose typical for Didion.
The protagonist, an unfulfilled actress, recounts her life while recovering from a mental breakdown in an exclusive Neuropsychiatric. The reason for her confinement is purportedly having participated in the suicidal death of a befriended bisexual movie producer, BZ.
The “facts” from Wyeth’s childhood include being raised in the small town of Silver Wells, Nevada, to a gambling, careless father and a neurotic mother who used to “croon to herself” of chimeric yearnings. After graduating from a high school in Tonopah, encouraged by her parents, she leaves for New York to become an actress. In the Big Apple, Maria works temporarily as a model and meets ex-boyfriend, Ivan Costello, as is later insinuated, a domineering psychological blackmailer who has no scruples using the money and the body of his acquiescent girlfriend.
During her stay in the city, Maria receives the news about the tragic death of her mother, possibly a victim of a self-provoked car accident. Her father dies soon afterwards, leaving useless mineral rights to his business partner and friend, Benny Austin. Maria withdraws from acting and modeling to get over the shock of her mother’s death, splits up with Ivan, moving to Hollywood with the newly met Carter. We learn that she and Carter have a 4-year-old daughter Kate, undergoing mental and physical “treatment” for some “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Maria truly loves her daughter, as indicated by her tender descriptions of the child, frequent visits to the hospital, and a determination “to get her out.” She seems to be the only significant person in Wyeth’s life. The love for the girl obviously means more than her marriage to despotic Lang and affairs with men, including his Hollywood acquaintances, Les Goodwin and BZ.
In the course of the novel, Maria becomes pregnant, plausibly by Les, and is coerced by Carter to abort. The traumatic procedure leaves her mentally shattered and haunted by nightmares of dying children. Looking for oblivion, she plunges into her routine of compulsive driving on the roads and freeways of southern California, wandering through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with second-rate actors and ex-lovers. She spends a night in jail for car theft and drug possession, after a one-night stand with a minor movie star, Johnny Waters. Eventually she involves herself in a perverse love quadrangle with Carter, BZ and his wife Helene, abruptly ended when BZ overdoses on sedative barbiturates (specifically, Seconal) in Maria’s hotel bedroom. The book concludes with reclusive Maria planning a new life with Kate, resolved to “keep on playing,” despite her past.
Didion's heroine owes much to the modernist output of Lost Generation wordsmiths, like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Didion's fiction is filled with psychologically wounded decadents, corrupted members of the rich middle class, and cracked-up elite from the movie industry. The rejection of the past, ravaging oppressiveness of material reality and an awareness of the ambiguous character of language, put her in a more postmodern strain.
Rattlesnakes appear several times in the book, mostly denoting personalized danger and threatening male predatoriness. As a child, Maria is made to read by her mother about “rattlesnake bite” from "American Red Cross Handbook." In an introductory monologue, Maria wonders why a coral snake needs “two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive, while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none.” Snakes are part of the desert landscape, they “stretched on the warm asphalt” on the roads in Nevada, figure in Maria’s fantasies about car accidents, or give deadly bites to those venturing outside. Maria tells Carter a story about a man who wanted to talk to God, later found dead, “bitten by a rattlesnake.” “[T]he rattlesnake in the playpen” and “on the plate” are also significant metaphors.
Noteworthy, negative connotations in world religions include snake as a Biblical tempter, an agent in ritual suicides, shrewd schemes, or the symbol of fertility and male sexuality - the phallus. In his writings for "The Philadelphia Journal," Benjamin Franklin represents a female rattlesnake as a symbol of America: “The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies.”
In the film version of the book, an Los Angeles highway is shown from a panoramic view as a snake.
Maria watches a hummingbird in Neuropsychiatric. Possibly it is the symbol of real life and tangible empirical reality, as contrasted to superficial and empty life in Hollywood. Earlier in the novel, Maria feels that “glossy plants” in her agent’s reception office take away her oxygen. At a party at BZ’s one guest complains of being given an “artificial lemon.”
Wyeth eats eggs while driving on the freeway. In a conversation with her agent, she asks him if he’s “playing with a Faberge Easter egg.” Conventionally, they stand for fertility, if anything a mocking reminder of Maria’s abortion.
Freeway, Road Signs and Hypodermic Needles
One of a few truly postmodern bits in the book. Initially, Maria’s road obsession is contrasted with a defunct interpersonal communication (or lack of such) between the characters. Freeway is “a way of getting somewhere,” sedated rhythm of the ride is an escape, while nowhere is the only destination she craves.
In the desert, Maria has trouble following road signs. The gravity of the road doesn’t allow her the carefree motion madness of a freeway, though her travels are equally aimless. Didion’s beatnikian descriptions heavily influenced Bret Easton Ellis, especially in his first book, Less Than Zero. Maria is “trying not to notice the signs,” Ellis’s protagonists are reluctant to put any meaning on the surface of reality around them.
Maria’s father is an addicted gambler. He loses a house in Reno in a private wager, and puts money in uncertain business deals. He teaches Maria to assess her chances in the game of craps which he compares to life. Despite the fact that he never wins, Maria claims to having inherited his optimism and, in the end, tenacity.
Maria often refers to herself as a “player” (but not an actress), mostly in the context of the roles that society imposes on her. BZ constantly accuses her of “playing,” and forces Helene to “play-or-pay,” though it is in the end his nihilistic attitude to life that brings him to suicide. Hollywood is a place where the thin line between truth and fiction blurs.
After the abortion, Maria suffers from recurring nightmares and ghastly visions featuring dead fetuses, dying children, severed body parts and plumbing.
They appear regularly, among others in the room in Encino where Maria undergoes abortion. May have to do with suffocating atmosphere of Wyeth’s environment. Carter is said to dislike air conditioners.
Maria dreams of driving “into the hard white empty core of the world,” then she falls into a sleepless dream. Before termination of her pregnancy, she sleeps between “immaculate” white sheets and wears “white crepe pajamas,” to insure miscarriage. Her mind is like a “blank tape” merely recording impressions and experiences. One of the figures from her dreams is “a man in white duck pants” who was present during the abortion. Whiteness prefigures nothingness and obliteration of memory. It is also in accordance with the stylistic intention of the author to write “a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all....white space. Empty space.... Insanity/Madness
An aggressive madwoman in a queue at a Market attempts a conversation with Maria, accusing her of inattentiveness. After marrying Carter, she receives letters from “mad people.” Her daughter is having mental problems, and ultimately she herself is admitted to a neuropsychiatric ward. In Didion’s world normality and cause-effect solutions constitute conventions established by unspecified “them.”