Joan Didion seized my attention early, before I wrote for myself. Assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in high school, I read with amazement her cool, detached descriptions of things I recognized growing up in California. I graduated quickly to “The White Album” and it was there she was the first to suggest my life had literary merit: her description of my hometown as being some place she passed through, from the North Bay to the East Bay, because there was no place there to return a rental car as she suffered an emotional breakdown. This implied to me, at age 18, everything and more than I wanted to know about growing up.
Her acute sensitivity to detail connected directly with the skeptical eye of the adolescent. I admired her method of careful observation, finding revealed truth in the everyday that we adults take for granted, unchanging, and immutable. But her method as it appealed to me when I was young marked me: the often passive but meticulous attention to the obvious or overlooked that other people in their haste or misdirection miss is useful (and lacking) in adulthood. “Didionesque” became both a description and a model to emulate for my friends and me in our writing.
Her sensibility as a Californian and Westerner also endured. After reading the great American writers of the South and the East (which from our perspective took in everything east of the Rockies), it was always pleasurable to return and read something that reflected my own surroundings and upbringing. (For example, only a Northern Californian can truly appreciate her revelation that Huey Newton was “a Kaiser,” that is, a member of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization. Who knew that the Black Panthers had a group medical plan?)
Only later did it occur to me that Didion’s public acclaim but lack of establishment laurels – she never won a Pulitzer Prize – suggested that her voice and regionalism could seem alien, even bizarre, to anyone not raised in my home state. I am no doubt proved right in my intuition that Didion’s late memoir about the death and illness of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Quintana Roo, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was her first to win a National Book Award. In her straightforward, literal and full-disclosure accounting of the trauma and dislocation of that year, it is her least Didionesque book.
The new biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daughtery, is haunted by death from the last pages. We know, if we know Joan Didion, how the story ends. But the most powerful and quietly devastating real-life manifestation of Didion’s flattening fear of catastrophe comes about half-way through the book, accounted for and tossed away. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, hired a young girl from Central America to look after their daughter. The girl had a baby, who was then raised in the Dunnes’ house, which was kept obsessively clean to protect their own daughter. When the mother and baby returned home to visit relatives, the infant’s unpracticed immune system collapsed, she contracted a fever, and died.
Didion feared not just the prospect of immediate disaster – the fatal illness, the heart attack, the life changed in the instant – but would have recognized the crushing, tragic irony of protecting a child so well that it kills her. That this story is simply mentioned in passing in the first comprehensive biography of Joan Didion is just one of its many flaws but by no means its least. (Like others, I’ve been annoyed by the author’s attempt to mimic Didion’s fictional style.) Still, it’s important to note that we now have a fully developed narrative of Didion’s life to better understand her influences and her impact on American culture.
Death stalked Didion as the mysterious stranger killed acquaintances, friends, and loved ones as he closes in on those closest to her: her daughter and husband. She is surrounded by horror which more than accounts for her desiccated dread. Her niece was murdered, her agent died in his 50s, leukemia killed her sister-in-law, suicide claimed her brother-in-law, and some of the Manson victims she numbered among her friends. Indeed, given how many people died in her life it is strange to realize that her memoir of her upbringing, “Where I Was From,” was written after her mother died around the turn of the millennium.
Joan Didion, Malibu 1976. Photo bi/via Nancy Ellison.
That memoir achieved a pinnacle in a theme she has explored since the 1960s. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote at the beginning of “The White Album”. This may seem like overstatement until we recognize that we understand our own experience, history and public life through a series of stories rather than the longer, infinitely more voluminous series of details and events of our actual experience. Storytelling saturates every aspect of adult consciousness, from the explanations we tell our children to the 30-second spots on television. Storytelling is so pervasive that we mistake it for reality because there is no other, easily graspable way to communicate our experience. But narrative, or story-telling, is not the same thing as experience. Narrative is not reality: it is a way of picking out the most important and relevant details of our life and finding a common sentient thread to string through them in a way that makes sense. Without this organizing principle, our lives would be incoherent.
For non-writers, and even for many writers, there is something spooky and slippery about narrative. Some stories work themselves at a deep, almost subconscious level – the endurance of the gothic and Grimm fairy tales goes far to explain this and so does the “heroic journey”. But what makes a “good” or “compelling” story is not something easily taught and takes some time for even professionals to learn. Any newspaper cub reporter can tell you what it’s like to finally come up with a “great story” in a budget meeting, but she might be hard-pressed to explain why beyond a series of compelling elements lacking elsewhere.
Nonetheless the self-critical writer recognizes at some point that narrative can distort reality beyond recognition. Didion’s dry, scathing views of San Francisco hippies, or young marrying couples in Las Vegas, or even those running the California aquaduct and Los Angeles freeway system, would not recognize themselves in her reporting. They tell themselves different stories. A good story can lead to the narrative version of sample bias, where we mistake the compelling exception for the rule. And I’ve always worried that the drive for the “good story” means we may miss the profundity in the mundane. Didion hammers at this, most tragically, in her reporting on the Central Park Jogger case: what makes the story of a lone, white, “attractive” victim so much more compelling than any of the other 3,254 reported cases of rape in New York City in 1989? To the tabloid journalist – indeed, all of New York, it seemed at the time – the answer is obvious, beyond explanation. But Didion shifted that spotlight to expose the even darker corners of New York – as well as our own bias and indifference – in one of her best essays.
Didion never goes so far as to explain explicitly what she means by story-telling or narrative. At the beginning of “The White Album” she uses some peculiar analogies: “The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which”. That can seem unintelligible to even the most sophisticated reader.
This question is the foundation for virtually all of her future reporting, from presidential races and the Central Park Jogger to her own background in “Where I Was From”. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Daughtery meticulously accounts, the narratives of public life irremediably fractured. She no longer could recognize or understand events – her account of the five-year-old girl found clinging to a fence on Interstate 5 is one searing example – as she had traditionally. These commonly accepted narratives, she wrote, were replaced by the sheer insanity of Vietnam, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and almost inevitably, the Manson murders.
Narrative had a particular relevance to Didion’s writing about politics, which she turned to in the 1980s and 1990s. As I began to work in politics I found this writing less and less compelling, but her idea that narrative drives politics remains one of the most useful and penetrating critiques as it is practiced today. Nevertheless I found Didion’s flat, skeptical ear when turned to the professional vocabulary of politics – always in quotes: “trade-offs” and “programs” and “policy” and “play” – could be easily turned to any other profession. (Indeed, I can imply the same cynicism very easily with Daughtery’s writing about the Dunne-Didion health crises which he unhelpfully leaves unexplained in layman’s terms: “hemodynamically significant lesion,” and “angioplasty,” and “congential defect of the aortic valve” and “radio-frequency ablation of the atrial-ventricular node”.)
Instead of revealing systemic cynicism, she has exposed the technical vocabulary of a committed if exotic profession. It wouldn’t have made sense for her to explain it, since the exclusionary vocabulary was the point. But what she found to be exclusive I found to be a specialist’s way to describe the work I did. All professions are this way. Perhaps she was yearning for a purer, amateur politics as reflective of the kind of fundamental American innocence we all seek in our political life. But that doesn’t make her insight particularly extraordinary.
But in the beginning and the end, Joan Didion is a Californian. It’s hard to overstate, as a native Californian, how much she writes for and about California and Californians. The state’s uniqueness – climatological, social, cultural – has been plumbed for generations. But Didion was raised in its heart and writes about this state of mind from within. She was born in Sacramento to fourth-generation Californians who can track their lineage back to and through the Donner Party that perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847. Indeed, both Didion and Daughtery use this oft-told warning fable of hubris, tragedy and anthropophagia as a sort of talisman, the root of all fatal human folly.
But for the later arrivals – which includes most of the state and me – the settler narrative does not resound as profoundly as Didion’s depiction of an Eden whose compact with the snake in the garden includes the hot winds, the fires, the droughts and earthquakes, and a culture that seems unhinged, prone to murder. Californians understand what it means to bear the Santa Ana, to watch the incinerated oak leaves fall from the sky, to dive under school desks when the building begins to shake. The cults and random madness seem to be less immediate concerns.
Unlike observers from elsewhere, who write about these phenomena as freakish, exotic events, Didion wrote about them for what they were: permanent features of the landscape, an inescapable part of life in the garden.