The Death of Didion

Joan Didion was my favorite writer. That “was” may go back to a time before her death. It may have ended when I read Blue Nights, but I have yet to choose a replacement. Her style was extraordinary in its simultaneous originality and simplicity, and I followed her with devotion, while knowing I could never write like her. Perhaps because I knew I could never write like her: terse, incisive, stark, and stripped of emotion, while effectively evoking it from the reader. She is one of only two big writers who I have gone out of my way to see speak, and meet.

I was introduced to Joan Didion’s work, as I was introduced to so many of my favorite artists, by my college professor/surrogate father/friend who died last year, also of Parkinson’s, though a decade younger than her. He gave me Play It As It Lays in the midst of the drama of my depressed, self-absorbed, self-destructive sophomore year in Los Angeles, where it largely takes place; studying acting, which is the career of the protagonist; chain smoking, like he;, obsessively driving the freeways when I couldn’t sleep, as she did; routinely tearing through specific intersections highlighted in the book. I gobbled it up like it was the one essential nutrient keeping me alive. To this day, it is one of my top 5 favorite novels. That was the beginning of my obsession, which stretched over 12 books. Her memoir Where I Was From is the rare holdout on the shelf, and will now be my holiday reading. Because that’s what we do when writers die. At least I bought it while she was still alive to reap whatever profits were to be had.

I didn’t love all of her books. The political ones, in particular, were too insider-y for me. I don’t know if I’d understand them better now than I did then, and I don’t feel any need to find out. But when she was on … fuck. She had a way of making the ethereal tenable, and making the mundane revelatory. The contents of a purse (The Book of Common Prayer) could say as much as a deep psychological delve into a character. This was a revelation to me.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

I don’t think of Didion as a spiritual person, and I don’t think she did, either. But anyone who deliberately digs deeply into their own mind is bound to run up against the boundaries of things, the immaterial. Her famous quote above is right out of Buddhism 101. But rather than trying to escape the narrative and simply be, as Buddhists do, she relentlessly shoveled the shit, which might be almost the same thing, in the end.

Depression, in Didion’s works, is depicted not by talking about it: characters don’t discuss their feelings. They may not say much at all. They exhibit certain behaviors which represent certain states or weaknesses or depressive or anxious characteristics. It is the behaviors that hold their attention, not the motivation underneath. They are trapped in the idea of their own identity, or what it should be, or what they think others perceive it to be. They follow the directions drawn for them instead of being present in their own lives. They are detached to an exceptional degree, so that the protagonists may seem to be narrating their own story as they’re living it, or rather instead of living it, believing that changing the narrative will change the person herself.

She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper…. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household…. She knew all the indices of the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.  

…she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable …

Play It As It Lays

A journalist and sometime screenwriter herself, her characters seem to also be watching the movie from the outside, narrating the story of their lives instead of living it, moving through a kind of fog or mild narcotic state. And not just in her novels. In her essays, the commentary on her life, her thoughts, seems to her far more real than her life itself.

Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind, she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.

Play It As It Lays

You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people…. Quite often during the last several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the Moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams.

In the Islands, essay (The White Album, 1979)

Joan Didion, as you probably know, wrote a gut-wrenching book on her reaction to the death of her husband, because she didn’t know what else to do, how to act, how to Be. (I read it in one sitting because it was beautiful and because it was too painful to carry over into a second day.) She grounded herself in curiosity about her own inner workings, and also recognized that she could not hide from grief behind words. That grief was present in a way that she often was not, shrouded in her protective magical thinking. And the uber-narrator is acutely aware of that.

Perhaps the writing brought her some peace. It definitely brought thousands of readers to some understanding – of her, of themselves, of grief. The best artists make the specific universal, and the universal personal. In her analytical way, she turned herself inside out – for us? For her? No matter. We could see ourselves reflected there, in all our gory vulnerability.

Life changes fast/ Life changes in and instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The Year of Magical Thinking walks us, and Joan herself, through the months after her partner’s death, but it’s not that different from the rest of her writing – writing as both interpreter of and substitute for living, “both a way of keeping a distance and a way of getting close. It’s both those things, simultaneously.” (interview ~2011). Writing is both a way to connect and a way to detach. Look at the lines above – the first words she wrote after her husband died weren’t explaining her own feelings, her own experience: they pulled the lens back on the moment – declarative, conclusive, not even in the first person. It isn’t about her, it’s about LIFE, in the abstract, writ large. She struggles both with the need to write to figure out the story, and with wanting to resist creating a narrative that may not be honest.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Why I Write, NY Times 12/5/76

There is something spiritual about Didion’s work, in its explicit omission. Her focus on behavior and thought and physicality recognizes its own exclusionary nature, thereby opening up the possibility for more. In Play It As It Lays, Maria’s fear of losing herself to inertia and pathos drive her to keep pursuing self-awareness.

By the end of a week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.

There is some terror in losing that distinction, because the character has no resource for dealing with it. She’s surrounded by self-serving, profit and status-driven people in a dry, manufactured, materialistic world. But the pain in living that detached narrative is palpable.

I’ll close this attempt at analysis with as much reportage as I can muster. The scene: a woman, far nearer 40 than 20, waits in line to meet her literary heroine, cradling her favorite novel and the writer’s recent memoir under her arm. As she watches the other attendees step up to the table, she cycles through reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent praise, something that hints at her own mental acuity, and with respect for the subject: that she has read more of the author’s works than anyone alive; that of the thousand novels she’s read, this is among the very best. She looks up as the distance shrinks and decides she doesn’t need to say anything at all. She can just hand over the books for signing. Then she approaches the table, and the tiny, old woman looks up, with eyes that look beyond and through what is in front of her, but stare definitively at her own, and the fan blurts out, “I love your writing SO MUCH.” The author opens the books and signs, saying nothing, and hands them back. Was there a tired sigh? The woman walks out of the theatre and goes on with her life, a new narrative to tell, with a new character under her belt: the fawning fool.

Thank you, Ms. Didion, for all of it.