As a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone she had been as a matter of course provided with clean sheets, orthodontia, living grandparents, ballet lessons, and casual timely information about menstruation and the care of flat silver. ~ JOAN DIDION, “A Book of Common Prayer”
The more I have come to love Joan Didion as a writer, the less I like her as a person.
I hasten to add that virtually all of my literary heroes have been, to one extent or another, not particularly likable. Genius — or a facsimile thereof — will do that to you, and I understand that Didion's dysfunctions and insecurities have informed and contributed greatly to her work. This work includes among the best non-fiction, much of it first-person journalism at its most outstanding, on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries. And some pretty damned good fiction, as well.
Beyond her compelling prose (she writes with the ferocity of George Orwell and Norman Mailer),
Didion’s greatest contribution as a journalist has been to chronicle in her distinctive voice the corruption of American democracy, a devolution she has traced with unsparing venom and well ahead of the largely clueless media pack from the post-World War II years through Vietnam, Watergate, the Ronald Reagan era and to Bushes père and frère.
"She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it," critic John Leonard once wrote of Didion. "And yet the character go on bleeding afterward.”
The first full-length biography of Didion, who turns a frail 81 on Saturday, was published in August. I did not walk but ran to pick up a copy of Tracy Daugherty's The Last Love Song in the hope that I would get a better understanding of how she wields her razor and perhaps not be so critical of her as a person.
Daugherty delivers on both her writerly art and her life, and while The Last Love Song is a bit overheated at times and a too worshipful at others, I better understand the technical aspects of Didion's craft and that what she writes is deeply informed by her nervous, quarrelsome, controlling and self-informed self. She is a mess, I suppose, but a brilliant one.
Didion understood, as few others did, that language no longer described the problems of democracy. It was part of a semantic problem in which the napalming of a Vietnamese village was called an "assistance effort" as the larger horror was conveniently if not all that cleverly obscured.
"For a committed writer, the only moral recourse at this point in American history, is to strip away by the bad politics of our time: setting, history, backstory, psychological motivation, romance, fable," writes Daugherty of the madness to Didion's method. "We begin with whatever's left -- 'colors, moisture, heat, blue in the air.' From there we build our story."
Writing in the first person can be perilous for a journalist, but her own point of view is so authoritative that this approach almost always works. Yet Didion can be amazingly tone deaf when it comes to popular culture. Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) is a most excellent collection of magazine pieces, but her take on Haight Ashbury is a bomb. She just didn't get it. And some of her writing on feminism is acutely spot on while some of it has a silly tit-for-tat quality.
Didion at her very best is Political Fictions (2001), a collection of essays on the American political process, including the election of George H.W. Bush, his defeat by Bill Clinton and Clinton's impeachment, and the 2000 George W. Bush-Al Gore election. These trenchant and frighteningly prescient essays should be mandatory reading for anyone needing to be disabused of the notion that the system works.
It was in Political Fictions that Didion revealed the Political-Media Industrial Complex, as I call it, in all its awfulness, an unstoppable mind-stealing monster that again is running wild in the astonishingly awful 2016 presidential campaign.
"The piece I finally did on the 1988 campaign, 'Insider Baseball,' was the first of a number of pieces I did about various aspects of American politics, most of which had to do, I came to realize, with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience. . . ."At a point quite soon during the dozen-some years that followed . . . it came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect. Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate's 'character' would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from our collective memory, sink traceless into a stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that became our national River Lethe. . . ."Perhaps most striking of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process. All of this was known. Yet by the time of the November 2000 presidential election and the onset of the thirty-six days that came to be known as 'Florida,' every aspect of what had been known in 1988 would again need to be rediscovered, the stone pushed up the hill one more time."
So while I might not have particularly relished spending an evening drinking with Joan Didion, something I did with pleasure with Hunter S. Thompson, a terrific New Journalism contemporary who nevertheless couldn't hold a candle to her, Didion has my deepest admiration as a stoic and survivor.
The lapses into her trademark self-absorbed whininess become muted on reflection, and for all the mystery she has draped around her tiny shoulders, she hides in plain sight. And wants it to be that way.
PHOTOGRAPH © BRIDGETTE LACOMBE