Books May 2021
Picking up the pieces
A review of Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion.
After the Sixties ended, on the shelves of any self-respecting hippie, wannabe hippie, or even Ivy League hippie three books could be found: The Whole Earth Catalogue, Raymond Mungo’s Total Loss Farm, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Then in her mid-thirties, Didion was one of the few older writers sympathetic to the counterculture without being a card-carrying member. It was nonetheless disconcerting that wherever she looked, and she seemed to look everywhere, she found a subject and pinned it like a rare moth to a board. She was the purest example, to use the language of the day, of a writer with it without being of it:
The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue . . . are The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other. . . . The New York Times brings out in me only unpleasant agrarian aggressions, makes me feel like the barker’s barefoot daughter in Carousel, watching the Snow children prance off to Sunday dinner with McGeorge Bundy, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. Howard Rusk. The cornucopia overflows. The Cross of Gold gleams.
I’m still trying to figure out what Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor and the famous theologian were doing with a founder of rehab medicine. Didion dragged in William Jennings Bryan’s rant against the gold standard to remind the reader that the downtrodden were crucified, as Bryan warned, on a cross of gold, and that highfalutin papers like the Times sometimes revealed a detachment from ordinary life. (Think of the society pages back then.) Such references age faster than newsprint.
In the days before the internet, skepticism toward the mainstream press was perhaps greatest when underground newspapers were still thriving. There was something then to compare the great newspapers to, many of them now empty shells. If you think her wariness misplaced, you might consider that three years after his death Billy Graham is still writing a column syndicated by a sister company of the Chicago Tribune.
To those who had not been reading Didion hither and yon, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a Yeatsian title for a Yeatsian age, showed off a style cultivated in the sun-scorched housing tracts of California after a bad case of Hemingway-itis, an infection that troubled more than one generation. Her stray pieces before then had perhaps passed unnoticed—who in the counterculture was reading The Saturday Evening Post, where most first appeared, or Holiday, or Vogue? (As a senior at Berkeley, she had won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue—that ultimate fashion victim.)
Didion was no Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-addled gonzo berserker of political reportage then. She was Little Goody Two-Shoes in comparison, with an intelligence fed on insatiable curiosity. Her lack of inhibition let her see things afresh. (She wrote that her advantages as a reporter were that she was “physically small,” “temperamentally unobtrusive,” and “neurotically inarticulate.”) Slouching Towards Bethlehem covered everything from Las Vegas marriages to a murder case in the wastelands of the San Bernardino Valley, from meeting the general secretary of a splinter group of California-style Stalinist-Maoists to searching Haight-Ashbury for a drug dealer named Deadeye. The most unexpected of these sketches was a gushing fan’s take on John Wayne, at a time when his politics made him persona non grata to most of her young audience.
Didion’s early essays hold up well—there, as often later in her nonfiction, she seemed excited simply to be reporting, like a child who had grown up dreaming of becoming Brenda Starr or Lois Lane. These were more than just catch-as-catch-can articles for glossy journals; her work was an anthropological expedition into the backwaters of Americana for portraits like those shot during the Depression by Walker Evans with his Deardorff view camera and Dorothea Lange with her Graflex. (Her sensibility, however, was closer to that of Diane Arbus.) The amateur anthropologist knows the same tedious stakeouts and rare chance encounters of the photographer but still has to gain entry like a burglar and stick around long enough to scribble out of the innocent’s guilt, as well as the guilty’s innocence.
Cool but high-strung, Slouching caught Didion’s distinctive voice, a public inspection in the midst of private meditation—though meditation is too deep a term. She was more a fussbudget mulling or musing, the way writers think but rarely bother to record. She took the pulse of the time while monitoring her own, and the result was ferret-eyed analysis with a dash of neurotic worry.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the less an older writer puts on paper, the more books come flooding from the workshop. As Didion has moved into her eighties, she’s spent her time regifting writing long consigned to the attic. In South and West (2017), she scoured her old journals to compile a book of travels through the South half a century ago with a short coda about her upbringing in California. The essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, her new scrapbook of scraps, somehow escaped the trawling that produced Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), After Henry (1992), and Political Fictions (2001), her previous collections of picked-up pieces.1 Of these scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, the first half-dozen come from a column in The Saturday Evening Post that Didion alternated with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, beginning in 1967. (She had begun writing for the magazine two years earlier.) This must have been a belated attempt by the Post, the main art-gallery for Norman Rockwell’s portraits of sentimental America, to attract younger readers. A month after her final column in 1969, the magazine collapsed. Resurrected a decade later, it has been struggling in obscurity ever since.
Among the subjects in this belated addition to her work are a tour of San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s Xanadu (“Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination”); a visit to Nancy Reagan while her husband was governor of California (“Nancy Reagan has shown me the game room, where the governor and . . . some of the state legislators like to play with electric trains”); on writing in general (“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully”) and in particular writing for Vogue (“Going to work for Vogue was, in the late 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes”). She blended in effortlessly, unnoticed by her prey.
A Berkeley grad, Didion has a hilarious piece, with streaks of envy added, about not getting into her dream school, Stanford. She’s rarely more interesting when more personal—the voice doesn’t change, but the nervy manner seems more nervous, the introspection too much like navel-gazing. In “Last Words,” she deftly anatomizes the first four sentences in A Farewell to Arms, which contain fifteen “and”s. This introduced an article on the controversial posthumous publication of Hemingway’s long-unfinished novel, True at First Light:
Eight hundred and ten pages or no, there comes a point at which every writer knows when a book is not working, and every writer also knows when the reserves of will and energy and memory and concentration required to make the thing work simply may not be available. “You have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing,” Hemingway had written to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1929.
She spoke from experience. Her own novels have frequently foundered, the characters like rats in an endless maze.
The essays are often beautifully lopsided—they never seem to know where they’re going, and they don’t leave many breadcrumbs for those following; yet she always seems to meet, or stumble upon, the right person to interview. She was never stuck being an epigone—she took what she needed from the deadly effective style of young Hem and moved on. The article on Vogue is devoted mostly to the fashion photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, and there are passages that show how far Didion moved:
Even little girls, as photographed by Mapplethorpe, seemed Victorian, not children in the modern sense but sentient beings, creatures with barrettes and bunnies but nonetheless grave with responsibility; small adults, who gazed at us with the utter clarity of what they knew and did not yet know.
Her mature style examined a basket of detail with a coroner’s dry manners.
The most impressive piece, published as recently as 2000, is a New Yorker profile of Martha Stewart, wittily titled “Everywoman.com.” The media mogul was an easy target, a woman vastly successful at convincing her audience—largely housewives—that to make their homes as picture perfect as Martha Stewart’s they desperately needed, at an immense cost in good sense, truckloads of frou-frou:
Martha will slip in this doubtful but nonetheless useful gloss, a way for the decorator to perceive herself as doing something more significant than painting pressed-paper eggs with two or three coats of white semigloss acrylic paint, followed by another two or three coats of yellow-tinted acrylic varnish, and finishing the result with ribbons and beads: “With the egg so clearly associated with new life, it is not surprising that the six geese a-laying represented the six days of Creation in the carol.”
Um, sure. And “nine drummers drumming” represent the old St. Joseph Drummers baseball team, while “five calling birds” are really “calling cards” left by prospective beaux.
Didion goes on to mention that in 1998 the “New York Times reported that ‘about two dozen scholars across the United States and Canada’ were producing such studies as ‘A Look at Linen Closets: Liminality, Structure and Anti-Structure in Martha Stewart Living’ and locating ‘the fear of transgression’ in the magazine’s ‘recurrent images of fences, hedges and garden walls.’ ” At such moments you realize how sly Didion can be in her eviscerations, done with a razor so sharp the victim feels just the warm rush of blood. She would have fit right in at the old Algonquin Round Table, sweet to your face but serenely nasty when you left to powder your nose.
It was canny of the New Yorker to commission Didion, who soft-pedals her analysis a little, as if embarrassed to be rooting secretly for the away team. She had no difficulty adopting the magazine’s not quite tongue-in-cheek style, detached and observant but not hiding a mild mean streak. Stewart’s reckoning came three years later, when she was accused of securities fraud and obstruction of justice. Convicted of conspiracy, the great influencer served five months in federal prison. She has lived to see herself replaced as a soft target by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose products, like a vagina-scented candle, are much kookier and a great deal more demented.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean also gathers up essays on members of Gamblers Anonymous, a reunion of World War II vets, and a fiction workshop at Berkeley with Mark Schorer. A few of these orphaned pieces are insubstantial, and one or two sadly self-indulgent—but how could any column published by The Saturday Evening Post not seem a little insubstantial? What were those Norman Rockwell covers but a warning to readers of The New Yorker or Foreign Affairs? There’s always the temptation for a writer who has achieved some notoriety in nonfiction to phone in a performance now and then. Didion rarely made that call.
She seems to have started writing nonfiction almost by accident. She tried and failed at short stories, tried and failed at novels, which did not stop her from publishing half a dozen of them. Her fiction is patchy, jittery, with paper characters and cardboard sets. The novels lack any willed existence within, her characters Freudian daydreams shot through with a nightmare or two. In her thirties she was a struggling writer whose skills were better adapted to, because limited and conditioned by, nonfiction. Though her attentions were often directed at the fairly trivial, she had the gift of making the trivial implicit with meaning. Nonfiction was probably meant to pay the freight until the galleons of fiction sailed into harbor—in a sense, despite a best-seller or two, they never did.
Apart from her nonfiction, Didion’s career has mostly been miss and miss. The novels remained sluggish, wistful, jury-rigged as a drain patched by apprentice plumbers. Her narrative voice there seems remote and scatty, while the voice in her nonfiction reads as intimately self-aware and almost irritatingly curious. There’s a woozy California spirit to it, half cagey and half not giving a damn. A great essayist rarely makes a good novelist. So much of the talent has been spent analyzing the self’s living inconsistencies, it’s difficult to make other lives as real—or perhaps so much mucking in the factual world makes it hard to enter the fictional. Didion and her husband also had good but not overly distinguished careers as scriptwriters. They worked with Hollywood royalty: Streisand, Pacino, De Niro, Pfeiffer, Duvall, Redford. The movies were made, released, had their mostly modest runs, and are now almost forgotten.
The most important of her late books are elegies for her husband and their troubled daughter, Quintana Roo. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which won the National Book Award in nonfiction, and Blue Nights (2011) are among the most stunning grief narratives in an age when there has been much to grieve. In her pathetic distraction, befuddlement, and Sphinxlike stoicism during the aftermath of those deaths, Didion found a soiled form of pathos. This is the more peculiar because, though her style in memoir is often overly finicky and self-involved past measure, she’s also unnervingly honest (or, if you like, brilliant at seeming so). Such a voice is by nature untrustworthy—uncertain, overly simplifying, often emphatic about everything but the most important things. Didion’s voice in mourning is, in other words, alarmingly like Anne Frank’s in Diary of a Young Girl.
Didion always had an eye for transient phenomena. She was good at taking the temperature of her own reactions, where other observers might merely have shrugged and moved on. A writer of passing fancies—like, say, Tom Wolfe—can easily become a bellwether for the cultural moment. Didion was canny enough never to accept that burden. Though her pieces were often reports on the fly, she stayed long enough to see the parts that made something whole. An essayist who falls too much in love with a subject commits the mortal sin of reportage, boring the reader to tears—unless the writer is paid by the word, when the sin is merely venial.
The flesh of Didion’s prose is exactly her weakness of spirit. Dunne died in 2003 from a heart attack after visiting their daughter in the hospital where she was lying in an induced coma. His death separated a couple who seemed less like lovers than co-conspirators. Didion was left alone to face the death two years later of Quintana, who had long had problems with depression and alcohol abuse. Most grief narratives are necessarily tedious, making the reader feel like a kidnapped bystander. Hers are murderously felt, if finally exhausting. We die when our loved ones die.
Didion once wrote “merchandising copy” for Vogue, which explains other things about her style—its loose concisions, its conscious eye for the flare and billow of detail. She had grown up in a state where everything, even the landscape, seemed to be for sale. Didion learned to insert herself into an essay sideways, like a passenger fitting gracefully into a crowded elevator—and she could start a piece seemingly anywhere, winding toward the subject with the shambling gait of a sloth going to a dentist appointment. It’s a pity she was never sent to Vietnam. In 1966, Didion and Dunne were on the verge of packing their bags when they realized that they couldn’t take their newly adopted daughter into a war zone.
Didion’s early nonfiction has now been collected, some would say embalmed, in two volumes in the Library of America series, The 1960s & 70s (2019), and The 1980s & 90s (2021). These include her novels as well, and I suspect a third volume is planned. A writer who often seemed slow to publish, who lamented her difficulty writing, who for long periods worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, may still end her career with a long shelf of books.
Didion can sound silly and superficial, but the reader would be advised to look for the raw cunning she conceals. As she wrote in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, there “is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” As an anatomist of culture, one given to hypotheses, partial answers, and quite a few unanswered questions, she made her mark. The essays proved, not just a gift ingrained in personality, but a contribution to a world that long ago stopped making sense. There may come a time when her essays seem merely fragments of that lost world, because they depend so much on having lived there.
1 Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion; Knopf, 192 pages, $23.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 9, on page 65
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