Most essays on Joan Didion are expected to quote her. Indeed most essays on Didion are encouraged to emulate her enviable and uncomplicated voice. Didion’s terse, intensely specific sentences and undiluted appetite for metaphor are almost inimitable. While this essay will avoid adopting the succinctness of Didion, one cannot help but be drawn into admiring her intimate and introspective sentences. For her, the misplacement of an accentuated verb can lead to a line being ruined. The inscribing of a comma or colon against an incorrect clause causes an almost irreparable loss of meaning. Since so much scholarship on Didion pores over her style, as opposed to content, it seems necessary to re-instate the importance of the cultural subjects Didion has examined in light of her recent eightieth birthday on the fifth of December last year.
My first encounter with Joan Didion began at an airport bookshop. I was awaiting a delayed flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles and gravitated towards the neglected bookstore that so humbly promoted copies of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and the new Patricia Cornwell crime novel at its front counter. I paced the aisles and found myself facing a rather unfamiliar catalogue of books; I encountered a small section of a shelf devoted to ‘Literary Fiction’. The title itself was as naïve as the books that were shelved there. Between copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and a volume of John Steinbeck short stories, was Didion’s work The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I had heard the name before, and since cultural capital was so invaluable during my undergraduate studies, I collected a copy and studied the blurb. The New York Times praised the work and said that this was Didion’s finest in a number of years, while a gold ribbon embroidered the book’s front with the illustrious title of ‘National Book Award Winner’.
While hunched over an achingly uncomfortable airport chair, I found myself enraptured with the slowly disorienting world of Joan Didion. The acclaimed memoir tells the story of the sudden death of Didion’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and in the same vein as a despairing lover mourning the death of their companion, the book is obsessed with replaying the quotidian and minute moments before Dunne’s demise with an intense and somewhat pathetic desperation. The writing – spare and terse – is predicated on avoiding the temptation for sentimentality, and like any good paradox (and good writing), this only compounds the emotional quality of Didion’s writings. The intentional avoidance of any sentimental depth within the memoir only points out its absent presence and Didion’s dire and desperate need for emotional release.
As I stumbled toward the escalator, I was accompanied by Didion’s need to constantly replay scenes from a marriage that were mediated by the post-death Didion at her desk, told by friends and relatives that she must write about his passing in order to heal and relinquish its unyielding hold. The very injection Didion inscribes to the narrative, the perpetual reminder that we are bearing witness to the act of her writing and reliving the trauma, was a powerful experience for me in a strange American airport. I don’t remember much of the flight but I recall the moment the plane landed and I looked out the window at the darkened grim Los Angeles sky and imagined myself living life for a year in constant replay.
Didion, born in 1934 in Sacramento, California, has always remained attached to the Californian landscape, continually dependent on it for the consolidation of her own identity. Her writing has always seemed to explore this, hungrily searching for answers to those more metaphysical questions when in lonely hotel rooms, modern shopping malls, or speeding down Los Angeles highways, all the while ironically imposing coherence on this confusing quest for self-knowledge.
Didion’s adolescence in California proved to be a traditionally angst-ridden one, as her gauche and reserved nature struggled to blend with that of her peers. Nearing the end of her high schooling, Joan applied to Stanford, a prestigious college in California that most her friends were accepted into, but she was rejected from. In the same vein as Sylvia Plath’s heroine in The Bell Jar, Didion tried to end her life with a bulging brown bottle of her parent’s prescription pills. However, unlike The Bell Jar’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, Didion did not go through with the deed, finding the act a wearying and pointless task. Instead she spent her summer in an unenviably sullen and contemptuous mood, and while reading the work of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemmingway (who became an important influence on Didion’s own writing), finally applied to Berkeley for its graduate writing program.
Didion is metonymic for a generation of women displaced by the looming 1950s culture ahead of them. The post-WWII generation of women, brought up by mothers and women who were empowered by work and social and financial independence, were now faced with the stifling mediocrity of suburban motherhood and Mildred Pierce television reruns. Didion, however, broke the mould and achieved early career success when her writing course led her to a lucrative placement at Vogue, writing and copy-editing for the magazine. After moving to New York City for the internship, Joan found that a decade had passed before she discovered that she had only been experiencing ‘ennui’ and not actually living like those in New York are supposed to. (Or perhaps no one indeed ‘lives’ in New York; they just find a room there.) Joan writes that despite New York City representing the pinnacle of civilisation for a Californian girl, it became a place of ‘unbearable exile’, and towards the end of her stay she only planned her escape. The essays that memorialise Joan’s experience of this New York period, namely ‘Goodbye To All That’ in her revered collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), enviably express the cultural and political values of one moment in American history through Didion’s own existential time in New York.
Moving on a decade, the 1970s did much to alienate America in the wake of the Manson Murders (Didion writes that Charles Manson killed the 1960s that horrific night in 1969), the Watergate scandal, the bloodshed in Vietnam, and the ongoing disillusionment with the increasingly modern but atomic world. Didion has always been attached to preserving a sense of anxiety in her writing. But after marrying her husband Dunne, Didion settled into a decade of magazine writing and fiction in the 1970s. With articles in The New York Times and Time, and pieces published regularly elsewhere, Didion’s literary success emerged in her seminal novel cataloguing the 1960s, Play It As It Lays (1970). The nervous and nihilistic tone of the work is achingly palpable from the first page, where the protagonist in a high-strung and skittish rumination writes: ‘You might ask that. I never would, not any more … Just so. I am what I am.’ From the opening, Didion throws readers into a world of angst and suspicion, generating the ennui of life in the most acrid and artificial parts of 1960s America, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
Since there is the temptation for biographical readings of the work, it is better to concentrate on the stylistic prowess of this novel in particular, which is rendered so compellingly addictive by the simple and unfettered (self)-descriptions our heroine lays bare. The stuffy motel rooms of Play It As It Lays are imbued with a strange transcendental quality, paradoxically becoming spaces so alienating that their banalities and prosaicness – their broken televisions, perpetually spinning roof-fans, and well-thumbed copies of the bible – take on a sublime and life-altering energy only Didion can truly articulate. A memorable moment in the story occurs when the protagonist finds herself numbed by the excesses and ordinariness of her California life and is only enlivened by the dangers felt by precariously speeding her convertible car down a busy Hollywood highway. As the car races along the tarred roads and the endless white lines, Didion’s heroine finds herself finally happy – freed from the repressive tediousness of her insipid and uninspired life amongst men and people she is so emotionally and spiritually estranged from. It is of no coincidence that Didion makes the heroine an actress since this compounds the irony of her unable to perform in her most mundane role – the daily life of a married woman.
During her writing career into the 1980s and beyond, Didion became one of the most praised and acclaimed female writers of her generation. Alongside the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, Didion represented a reservoir of women who migrated from mid-twentieth century North American culture into the strange literary culture of the postmodern canon. While other writers stayed with the American subject – such as Oates’s work on Marilyn Monroe in Blonde and Atwood speculating on the future of Western civilisation with The Handmaid’s Tale – Didion moved abroad with a series of novels that considered the socio-political scenes of other nations.
Turning her attention to the social fragmentation outside the theocratic American landscape in a triptych of novels, Didion explored the emotional and spiritual longings of people lost in foreign worlds. The Book of Common Prayer (1977) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) are predicated on their paltry descriptions and stoic tone, figuratively alluding to the meagre and ungarnished existence of many of those displaced in politically unstable Central American countries. In Democracy (1984), Didion studies a romance in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, between a former US Senator’s wife and a CIA agent. What distinguishes Democracy from the other works of Didion for this period is her self-conscious narratorial style. The narrator of the novel is no character within the story, but a stand-in for Didion as she self-reflexively considers that this book is actually not the book she intended to write. While some may be suspicious of this conceit for Democracy, the tact works within Didion’s traditionally tight economy of language, given how well she uniquely combines her reportorial style alongside her ability to meditate on the inadequacies human beings can feel in times of pain and loss.
In the last decade, Joan Didion has experienced a resurgence, unlike many of her contemporaries. After the tragic and traumatic sudden death of her husband in 2003, the entrance of death into her home paralysed Didion. Although she had always been fixated by anxiety and angst in American suburban life, it had yet to grip her so powerfully as it did with this sudden death. The heart attack that killed Dunne replayed in her mind repeatedly until at the behest of her editor and friends she was told she must write in order to heal from this traumatic experience. It would seem strange to tell Joan Didion that she must reify what she knows; it has always been instinct for Didion to imbue her intimate self with the most un-intimate objects of America: hotel rooms, airport lounges, football stadiums.
The Year of Magical Thinking, written in Didion’s trademark sparse and selective prose, is inherently driven by its desire to recount the year after the heart attack. It details her ruminations, replays, and recordings after his passing. What proves to be the most compelling – and existential – part is Didion’s compulsive rewritings of the event in question, which took place in the living room of her New York apartment. Chapter after chapter sees Didion rewrite the same heart attack, each time looking more closely – or perhaps less closely – at the event, analysing the dinnerware, the photographs on the wall, or the carpet in the apartment. This interest in the minutiae evidently provided Didion with a relief from the sight of her husband’s dying body. By privileging the intimate and intricate details of the insignificant, Didion only heightens her trauma for the readers as we similarly see the pointless agonising over the banal pieces of furniture or groceries in the home after a death. For readers, avoiding the site of her husband only ironically accentuates it as we instead see Didion fascinated by how suddenly the meanings and sentiments of her home are transformed.
The material that Didion has explored over the past sixty years, from the height of the Haight-Ashbury drug district of San Francisco to memorialising the death of her daughter in Blue Nights (2011), has negotiated the terrain of journalism, fiction, and intimate and incautious biography. While the America in which she started writing has since changed irrevocably, Didion has been an important record keeper for the individual experience of American culture since the 1960s. Her political and journalistic volumes are unparalleled accounts instantiating moments of the generational trauma, historical shifts, and human grief of twentieth-century America, aptly earning her the title of the ‘entrepreneur of anxiety’ by one critic.
Although she has cited the process of writing as a ‘hostile act’, one characterised by its desire to impose an idea on someone else that may see the same idea differently, Didion has nevertheless made few enemies in this act of hostility. It should come as no surprise that one of Joan Didion’s most memorable lines has entered the popular literary imagination as metonymic for the power and point of writing: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ After sixty years of telling her own stories, Didion herself has never stopped writing so that we too may live them.