Joan Didion’s Journalism
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The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of the period immediately following her husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death and her daughter Quintana’s critical illness, was published in 2005. It is widely regarded as her masterpiece.  (Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell chose it as their Book of the Year.) Didion’s previous writing was read as preparation for this achievement: suddenly, telos achieved, the contours of her literary career were clear – clear, consistent and coherent. This was a single body of work – ripped and shredded, flexing its muscle.

John Leonard’s introduction to We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (2006) – large parts of which are thriftily recycled from his review in Harper’s Magazine of Didion’s Where I was From (2003) – asserts that The Year of Magical Thinking ‘should not have come as a surprise’. In the New York Review of Books, Sarah Kerr suggests After Henry (1992) contains seeds that will ‘come into fuller bloom decades later in The Year of Magical Thinking’.

In fact, The Year of Magical Thinking may well be Didion’s worst book of non-fiction, challenged only by Political Fictions (2001) for the bottom spot. But Didion has been misunderstood since her earliest books, despite her own frequent attempts to explain what her aims are. The misconceptions about Didion’s work are many. Here are the four main ones. First, that she is a brilliant stylist. Second, that she is cool, a clear-headed, detached observer. Third, that she is a pessimist. Fourth, that The Year of Magical Thinking is her best book.

Didion is not a brilliant stylist. She is, though – but only in her earlier essays – an excellent mimic. ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’, the first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), takes on the rhythms of hard-boiled voiceover, Chandler and James M Cain:

It was a spotty case, and to make it work at all the State was going to have to find a motive. There was talk of unhappiness, talk of another man. That kind of motive, during the next few weeks, was what they set out to establish. They set out to find it in accountants’ ledgers and double-indemnity clauses and motel registers, set out to determine what might move a woman who believed in all the promises of the middle class—a woman who had been chairman of the Heart Fund and who always knew a reasonable little dressmaker and who had come out of the bleak wild of prairie fundamentalism to find what she imagined to be the good life—what should drive such a woman to sit on a street called Bella Vista and look out her new picture window into the empty California sun and calculate how to burn her husband alive in a Volkswagen.

Pastiche, then, and one transcendent touch – that ‘empty California sun’. At the same time, it is impossible to read her needle-eyed notation of ‘New California’ without comparing her to Nabokov, specifically the bravura ironic travelogue in Lolita. Didion, then Nabokov:

[…] then drive west from San Bernadino out foothill Boulevard, Route 66: past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is nineteen stucco tepees: “SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM.” Past Fontana Drag City and the Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go […]

A winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel. Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle. Works of Art collected by one Rogers over a period of years. The ugly villas of handsome actresses. R.L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano. Mission Dolores: good title for a book. Surf-carved sandstone festoons. A man having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park.

Nothing in Didion is anywhere near as good as ‘lavish’. The difference is between a good journalist – patient, intelligent, dryly incredulous – and an irrepressibly gifted writer.

There are many other examples of mimicry in the earlier essays, in particular the Dickensian tropes of ‘James Pike, American’ from The White Album (1979). But quite early on, Didion stops copying other writers and starts to think that she can make it on her own. This is where the trouble begins.

*  *  *  *  *


For advocates of Didion’s writing, the sentence is the repository of her talent. Why the sentence should be more important than the paragraph is unclear. 

Perhaps because so many of her paragraphs are single sentences.

A favourite two-word paragraph from The Year of Magical Thinking: ‘Lynn arrived.’

A favourite single-word paragraph from The Year of Magical Thinking: ‘Yet.’

The sentence is primary:

One beautiful sentence follows another […] (Malcolm Jones, Newsweek)

[…] her sentences could only be hers. (Michael Gorra, The Chicago Tribune)


This is from John Leonard’s introduction to the new omnibus:

I have been trying forever to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours … something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves. […] a prose that moseys from sinew to schadenfreude to incantation, with some liturgical/fatidic tendencies toward the enigmatic and oracular, seasoned sarcastically.

Leonard’s original Harper’s version of this tribute—is it a tribute?—doesn’t help us to understand what he means. It has the advantage of being shorter: ‘Her essays are as sinewy as her novels, written in the same icepick/laser-beam prose, with the same liturgical/fatidic tendencies toward haiku.’ Leonard’s evocation is impossible to parse, but it lends its weightlessness to the consensus – that Didion’s sentences are distinctive and beautiful.

Some examples, from her later books of non-fiction:

There had been in January 1989 the installation of a new editor, someone from outside, someone whose particular depths and shallows many people had trouble sounding, someone from the East (actually he was from Tennessee, but his basic training had been under Benjamin Bradlee at the Washington Post, and around the Times he continued to be referred to, tellingly, as an Easterner), Shelby Coffey III. (After Henry)

Crime had long been taken for granted in the less affluent parts of the city, and had become in the mid-seventies, as both unemployment and the cost of maintaining property rose and what had once been functioning neighbourhoods were abandoned and burned and left to whoever claimed them, endemic. (After Henry)

George Bush’s life is understood to have changed when he and his wife decided to “get out there and make it on our own” (his words, or those of his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, from the “lived the dream” acceptance speech at the 1988 convention, suggesting action shirtsleeves, privilege cast aside) in west Texas. (Political Fictions)

Each was the adored first-born son of a mother left largely, in the economic and social dislocations that transformed America during and immediately after World War II, to her own devices. (Political Fictions)

These are distinctive sentences, but only because they all make the same mistake. If you can’t hear it, I can’t help you. Every sentence is like a drugs mule, force-fed leaden information, until the large intestine takes up the entire torso.

In her later non-fiction Didion also relies heavily on lists. From about page 400 onwards the margins of my copy of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live are heavily marked with angry pencil lines and a gradually enraged shorthand: ‘L’ (list), then ‘FL’ (‘fucking lists’), then ‘AFL’ (‘another fucking list’). Viz:

I found no Halazone at the Metrocenter but became absorbed in making notes about the mall itself, about the Muzak playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “American Pie” (“…singing this will be the day that I die….”) although the record store featured a cassette called Classics of Paraguay, about the paté de foie gras for sale in the supermarket, about the guard who did the weapons check on everyone who entered the supermarket, about the young matrons in Sergio Valente jeans, trailing maids and babies behind them and buying towels, big beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan that featured Bloomingdale’s; about the number of things for sale that seemed to suggest a fashion for ‘smart drinking’, to evoke modish cocktail hours. (Salvador, 1983)

When she comes into a style of her own, Didion does not know how to write. That is, she does not know how to convey information clearly — she tries to be evocative, which, for her, means inclusiveness.  (John Leonard’s emulative scattershot riff on her sentences has picked up the habit from Didion.)  She tries to avoid the necessity of choice, of leaving things out.

Incoherence equals ‘artistry’ in this particular aesthetic. It must originate in Hemingway’s micro-avant-gardism: ‘I had wanted to go to Abruzzi. I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting.’ An aleatoric list from A Farewell to Arms, a cold collation of increasingly discrete items illogically linked, and therefore poetically linked, by ‘and’. On the one hand, it is fluent free style, improvised prose-poetry. On the other hand, it is glib and semi-automatic. The cliché, ‘hard as iron’, is the giveaway. Hemingway is contagious: ‘the clear blue sky from which the plane fell’ is a structural, choral cliché in The Year of Magical Thinking. Out of a clear blue sky. Didion’s repetition, though, doesn’t aim at poetry but rhetoric. It hectors and bangs a drum: ‘I remember realising…I remember trying and failing…I remember thinking…I remember a silence…I remember setting aside the OAG…I remember calling Earl McGrath…I remember using the words…I remember him cutting directly through this…’ Eight instances on two pages of The Year of Magical Thinking.

Present in Didion’s work from the start is an atomist, who refuses to see the world as in any way coherent. In her introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she offers up the writer as neurotic, cowed by chaos, but capable of capturing it:

I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

Didion’s solution is to structure her essays as if they were a collection of tangentially-related vignettes, and to load her sentences beyond breaking-point.

Didion’s belief in the blood-dimmed tide is largely rhetorical – an opportunity for posturing and over-statement. Compare her melodramatic insistence in The Year of Thinking Magically that the dead are forewarned – like Gawain in the Chanson de Roland. Or that she herself has experienced ‘an apprehension of death’ on 57th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues. It was, she lugubriously relates, ‘an effect of light’, ‘a shower of gold, spangled, very fast, a falling of the bright [my italics; words by Nashe, arr. Didion]’. Two whoppers so grandiose she dares you to disbelieve. Same thing with ‘mere anarchy’.  Actually, her temperament is tidy. An example from her fiction. Her second novel, Play it as it Lays (1970) clearly shows her attempting to throw off cohesion and structure. The novel deals with the mental breakdown of Maria, a Hollywood actress. It is written in a series of short and very short chapters (Chapter 40 is 48 words long, Chapter 80 is 41 words long). It is designed to be inconclusive, incoherent, impressionistic. But within this structure, Didion is constantly coming to conclusions—each chapterette ends with a sentence designed to wrap up what has come before. ‘“I’m not crying,” she said, and she was not’; ‘She had nothing to say to any of them’; ‘She would do this one last thing and then they would never be able to touch her again’; ‘She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on.’

This professed atomism, however serious it may be, leads people to think of Didion as a pessimist, as well as a detached observer. However, there is a difference between realising that the world is meaningless and despairing of the fact. Leonard’s introduction tells us that ‘no one else has ever thought looking for the upside was a big part of her repertoire’. In fact, the search for the upside is fundamental for Didion.

Leonard overrides his own quotation from The Year of Magical Thinking: ‘[…] I realised that my impression of myself had been of someone who could look for, and find, the upside in any situation. I had believed in the logic of popular songs. I had looked for the silver lining. I had walked on through the storm. It occurs to me now that these were not even the songs of my generation.’ Optimism has always been present for Didion: in ‘On Self-Respect’ (from Slouching Towards Bethlehem) she talks of her youthful ‘conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys [but?] happiness, honour, and the love of a good man’.

Discussion of Didion’s attitude towards the world is sometimes framed as if insane optimism and insane pessimism were the only permissible positions to occupy. For example, Didion’s attacks on Reagan and Gingrich and Clinton (in After Henry and Political Fictions) do not show complete despair with the political process: they merely suggest that we need to be aware, and careful, because idiots and opportunists and priapists can and will be voted into office.

The notion of Didion’s pessimism is as frail as the strange idea that she is a detached observer. She may be descriptive rather than didactic, nor does she turn her essays into stump speeches to tell us what we need to do. But on some issues Didion is as engagée as the next Hollywood liberal. In ‘Los Angeles Days’ (After Henry), she describes the 1988 Writers Guild strike. Her use of the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’ is transparently a cover for a set of personal opinions. She makes a compelling case for increasing her own wages.

Didion has never made a show of being disinterested. The myth of objectivity hangs around her, partly because she tends (like her major youthful influence, Evelyn Waugh) to be rude about all her subjects equally. But in all her essays she has an apocalyptic moral point of view. Didion claims that people tend not to notice this. An example. Didion flags up misreadings of the title essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem – about life on Haight-Ashbury in 1967. Didion’s preface:

And after [the essay] was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. […] I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

So what is ‘the point’ of ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’? It describes a society in moral collapse, one which tries (very 1960s) to raise the consciousness of all its readers. The hippies and dealers whom Didion describes are symptoms of a wider problem not the problem itself. The whole of America is implicated in the collapse Didion sees coming: ‘All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job.’ The aim is to provoke a response, but it wishes to provoke this response via a seemingly objective reporting of facts:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at my place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

Moral judgment (it is a bad thing for five-year-olds to be given psychotropic drugs) is not withheld, only implied. No need to moralise and hector. Show, don’t tell.

Didion’s essays and fiction succeed when her fractured style is given topics it is small enough to deal with. Essays work well which are a grab-bag of anecdotes around a central topic. She is less good at expounding a central argument. She can be funny, as long as the individual scene or single joke does not have to be integrated into a coherent whole. This is the whole of Section 4 of ‘Los Angeles Notebook’ from Slouching towards Bethlehem:

A party at someone’s house in Beverley Hills: a pink tent, two orchestras, a couple of French Communist directors in Cardin evening jackets, chili and hamburgers from Chasen’s. The wife of an English actor sits at a table alone; she visits California rarely although her husband works here a good deal. An American who knows her slightly comes over to the table.

‘Marvelous to see you here,’ he says.

‘Is it,’ she says.

‘How long have you been here?’

‘Too long.’

She takes a fresh drink from a passing waiter and smiles at her husband, who is dancing.

The American tries again. He mentions her husband.

‘I hear he’s marvellous in this picture.’

She looks at the American for the first time. When she finally speaks she enunciates every word very clearly. ‘He…is…also…a…fag,’ she says pleasantly.

Which doesn’t fit in anywhere else, or add anything to the rest of the essay, but is at least funny. Or behaves as if it were funny – until you realise it is gossip but without the names. A reality-effect. Laconic, deadpan, out of a movie.

This brings us to The Year of Magical Thinking, with deals with real people, with real names. Throughout the memoir we are regularly given two refrains. The first, the sentences Didion wrote after her husband’s death—‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity’. The second is Gawain’s prophecy in the Chanson de Roland –‘I tell you that I shall not live two days’. These constitute a home chord for the book as a whole. They gesture at a structure. But in vain.

Didion deliberately alters her approach to deal with a unique subject. Her technique is inadequate, apparently:

As a writer, even as a child, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself. [my italics]

It isn’t easy to work out what she means – beyond a general sense that prose, however polished, is inadequate for an experience she doesn’t herself quite comprehend. Magical thinking, in other words. Or the refusal of the bereaved, in some crucial part of themselves, to accept death as final – which is the subject of The Year of Magical Thinking. Before, Didion knew what she thought and so lavished all her care on those sentences. Now her behaviour is hidden from her rational self.

Didion’s previous books were written by someone trying to pretend that she is not a part of the story she is telling – an ‘I’ like Christopher Isherwood’s. The Year of Magical Thinking converts Didion herself into the story. This is not an account of her husband’s death or her daughter’s illness, but of Didion’s reactions to those events: the shipwreck as seen by a survivor. The Year of Magical Thinking is a report on Didion’s experiences, but the emotions it makes reference to seem to be Didion’s alone. And we don’t believe her. That experience of death on 57th street, for example, is bogus in its emotional overreach and its fatal literary echo. It happened – in a book, in ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’. Elsewhere in The Year of Magical Thinking we experience competitive grieving. Dickens has a wry letter about his friend Forster’s grief at the death of the actor Macready’s daughter. He gives us the grief of a gold medallist Olympic pentathlete. But Didion doesn’t present her grief as competitive grieving – which would be interesting – but as a genuine quasi-mystical wound. You can see why it went down a bomb on Broadway.

We think we are always looking for consolation. But we would feel grander, bigger, to be unconsoled. The eagerness with which people have embraced The Year of Magical Thinking suggests that we are easily flattered. The Year of Magical Thinking is a personal book on a personal topic, deliberately written in such a way, you would think, as to exclude everyone except Didion herself. But the heroic scale of this grief is inclusive, it tells us what we might be capable of. And she has read the literature of mourning. She cites it. It confirms our human amplitude. In the end, you have to take her word for it – or dispute, heartlessly, with a grief-stricken woman whose face is a mask of tears.

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