Notes on a Native Daughter: Joan Didion at 80




EVEN NOW, even in this century, decades past the pictures with Corvettes and cigarettes and sunglasses, even after her manner, with its uneasy admixture of condescension toward the world and delicacy toward the self, became case study for how to be slightly dangerous and stylish and aloof as a writer without the compensatory aid of masculine bravado, there is always murmuring about Joan Didion.

Didion is 80 this month. One hears she is in bad health, but I never hear quite what’s bad about it. She is from Sacramento, California; at least that geography is certain. There are rumors, always, from everybody, even friends who didn’t know she was alive until I mentioned it are suddenly halfway into recollecting some gossip they heard at a party in New York, from an editor at The Believer or n+1 or some other imprint of Modern Jackass, or in something they read somewhere or at any rate heard about from a college buddy in Atlanta who said they read it somewhere else. I knew someone, a friend of a friend, he was working for her. Reading to her. She’s frail. She can’t read on her own anymore. Wait I hear she’s fine, though. Aren’t they making a new documentary she’s in? She didn’t look well in that New York Review documentary, though, did she? But didn’t she just have a book? Wait, she’s still alive? When Shirley Temple went this year, I was mainly surprised to discover that she had, until the day prior, been living. Harper Lee is on a porch somewhere, or possibly asleep. She’s old; it’s half past 10 in Chicago now and even later in the South.

It’s an odd thing about elderly legends: we can’t quite reconcile our impulse toward tidy legacy with the persistence of a physical thing. It is an incongruity. She is still out there.

“I’d hate for it to happen, it’s sociopathic to want it to, but if he died right now, we could mourn, reflect, and move on. Like we’ve practically already done it as a culture, it just somehow hasn’t actually happened yet.” I was in a house in the San Fernando Valley when a friend of a friend said that about Bob Dylan. It might equally well be said of Didion.

Happy birthday, Joan.

¤

On August 19, 1977, Groucho Marx indulged a rare failure of timing and died just three days after Elvis Presley. Perhaps owing to that distraction there is some dispute over his last words. By one account he plagiarized Henry John Temple, the 19th century British prime minister with “Die, dear doctor? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do.” By the other he said, “Either my watch has stopped or I’m dead.” He may have had that joke in his pocket half his life: a punch line waiting for its singular setup. This isn’t unique to dying men. As far as spontaneous wit goes, planning is the better part of execution.

When I was living in the Valley, self-serious in lieu of actually being serious about my writing, I had a planned joke of my own. When I was asked, inevitably I imagined, who my greatest influences were, I would say “Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds.” This would be clever, as clever as whatever work had inspired the journalist to ask me.

(It should give you some sense of my age and stupidity that this was a question I was sure I would be asked one day. More than that: I believed that being asked would signal arrival; a necessary check-in on the assumption that I would one day be some as of yet unborn author’s answer and thus requiring records be kept, perhaps for as of yet unborn literary academics.)

These days I do not expect I will be asked.

Let me go further. I am sure I will never be asked. At any rate I don’t know much about how influence works; it’s meant to be obvious to the outside and invisible to the influenced, I think. But I do know that while I have had many infatuations in American letters, I have only had two loves: Truman Capote and Joan Didion.

About Truman Capote I’ll only say that it was a teenage love. I encountered him early when favorite or first and best at any given time was only the last thing I’d touched, and Capote was the first one to stay with me after I’d moved on to the next thing. For years, even long past when I’d become distracted by other authors I liked equally well. I maintained that of course Capote was still my first and best, because he was the first to mean something to me and you cannot take an eraser to the bark of a tree behind your parent’s house. To prolong the metaphor: Didion was a more adult kind of love. It was not until I had been with her a long time, read the odd essay or novel over the course of years that the extent of my feelings revealed itself.

To belabor the metaphor: this is complicated somewhat by the fact that many young men and probably some young women in writing have thought about Joan Didion in terms of desire. I raise the possibility only because when someone says to me I’d love to fuck Keira Knightley (or Natalie Portman, or Joan Didion) I say of course, but only in the way that a vacation might be nice, or hot coffee is better than cold, of course, or I’d like to live forever, of course.

Didion is a good writer, of course, that too falls into this class of observation. I don’t mean to tell you that. Nor do I mean to comment on her recent work. There is nothing to say about it, or at least anything I can say about it. The Year of Magical Thinking, as a literary object, was better than Blue Nights, although both are good, of course. Beyond that there are only the observations of rhythm and resonance that hold true in reference to all her writing and various ways to be gratuitously insensitive about her losses she’s suffered.

For example: earlier this year, Vogue found it fortunate that those late books finally brought her mainstream success. She deserved it and she was better suited to document family loss than other writers, they said. (She had been “rehearsing” for it all her life, they said, in an aside suspiciously similar to John Leonard’s 2006 introduction to Didion’s collected nonfiction. “Women are always rehearsing a kind of death on Didion’s tarmac,” he says, referring to how her novels seemed to anticipate the performance of her loss in Magical Thinking.) Sad, naturally!, Vogue says. But how lucky for the rest of us! Well.

(“Writers are always selling somebody out.” That’s the last line of Didion’s own introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She would, I think, be the last person to say that any work is too holy or too high to take to market, but then she would also be among the first to remind us that there is often too low a price).

There are people who don’t like her, of course. They come in the usual varieties of contrarianism. There are snobs, suspect of any literature by an American, much less in the last 100 years. There are the inquisitor leftists, engaged in some kind of forest-and-trees confusion, condemning Didion’s “The Women’s Movement” for insufficient piety to Marx as he relates to feminism. (“Marxism in this country had even been an eccentric and quixotic passion,” she writes,

One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point. The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having. The minorities seemed to promise more, but finally disappointed: it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals, and only rarely as ploys, counters in a larger game.

Here one gets the sense that the trouble is not her sympathy or hostility toward feminism or Marxism or any kind of reform at all that bothers these critics. Her observations are too particular to infer the grandiosity of an absolute truth. Rather, it is that very idiosyncratic uncertainty that seems to trouble these critics. Didion refuses them safe ground against the future humiliation of liking anything that might turn out later to signal deviance from approved movement thought.)

Then there are the unfamiliar, those who don’t like thinking much of that which they have not thought much about. We all do a bit of this. It is easier to dislike what one does not know — not because of any nativism, but because there are far too many contestants for us to rank, and we all like to think we’re all keeping up.

Finally there are people who do know her writing, and do not have political or cultural motives but simply do not like it. Well fine. Of course. Some people don’t like Beethoven. They are at least more honest than people who prefer Richard Strauss as a point of principle and fail to recognize that there is a reason why those considered the best are considered so well.

That there is little left to say on the subject of Didion’s quality itself is, itself, approaching an of course. She’s like Freud or Marx or Nietzsche in that way, the course of her influence so thorough that the only features not yet white noise are the suspect ones. We all grant that we are moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and devious motives; we grant, in short, that we have a subconscious. Yet we aren’t terribly keen on this Freudian notion of the Oedipal complex: all the old Austrian’s ideas were a bit strange, weren’t they? At least the ones we still attribute to him. Didion has the most beautiful eyes ever used for navel-gazing and it is because of her that I can say that this is not meant as a sly insult.

She didn’t navel-gaze exclusively, of course. For an easy blurb we might say she was a “keen and penetrating observer of an era” if saying those precise words didn’t invite 100 suits for plagiarism from 1,000 prior blurbers. But the navel-gazing is there. It’s only that we don’t call it that. It’s only that Didion’s navel-gazing makes excellent copy. It’s only that it taught the fairly obvious lesson that the small story that tells the big story can be you — and not just in long-form memoir! Didion wasn’t the first to imply the general from the particularly personal. But there’s something particular about how she does it and it is difficult to figure out without hand waving about rhythm. Here’s a chance to refer to Magical Thinking: it’s the kind of thing John Gregory Dunne would read over and over to figure out how it worked.

All of that is to say that because Tom Wolfe and because James Baldwin and Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr, but because Didion most of all, an American essay today without the sudden and revelatory personal aside is hardly an American essay at all.

For example: I am, presently, in the northernmost room of an old hotel in the southwest corner of Wisconsin. The window looks with an oblique angle on the hillside above the lake that justifies the whole complex. A few trees, water that looks appealing without dropping the implicit threat of frigidity. The room itself has decorative shells and a small wooden desk, all of it arranged more toward the notion of what we find lovely than loveliness itself. Outside every room is a peg for a blanket, provided by the staff, but I took mine out with me earlier and have left it on a chair halfway down the hill and it is raining now.

I am told the hotel and the grounds were once a whorehouse, then a retreat for Latvian monks. Now it is a private retreat that I have come to with a group of artists who halfway like me, and I have run out of cigarettes, or am very near to running out — putting my finger in the pack, there are either three or five left, the angles they fall at tend to frustrate counting near the end of a pack. At any rate I haven’t got enough and I’ll be here another day and there’s no store near enough to walk to. I came meaning to write an essay about envy. I wound up writing about Joan Didion.

I’ve never quite been sure why I like her so much. Something about the capacity to be delicate and contemptuous at the same time. Something about being vulnerable and wanting and hating and being curious all at once, hacking out spaces for fascination and disdain from the same woodworks of the interior. I like that.

¤

For a long time I believed somewhat stupidly that Didion had invented the moniker California Republic. I knew California had been a republic, the Bear Republic, so named about the time gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and that it was sometimes referred to as such, but it seemed to me that the standard descriptor would be “republic of California,” and that California Republic, as it appears in the title section of The White Album containing essays about the state, was something Didion had invented, a not terribly complicated but evocative way to say that California is its own land or headspace or country (pick your not-quite-metaphor), one that she was interested in, one that by that name would suggest something of the truth to outsiders and also immediately resonate with natives. And so it is. But those words also appear on the state flag, in large, black letters, right beneath a picture of a bear. CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC. These are the only words on the whole flag, the one that hung above my elementary school, and high school, and every public building in the state.

How I missed this fact is not immediately explicable. I did not encounter Didion so early that I saw the words in her hand before I bothered looking at a flag. As it happens my first encounter with her was in Chicago, in my first year at university, in a postwar American literature survey. We read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” the same day as a Tom Wolfe essay about people building muscle cars in Los Angeles.

Our professor explained that New Journalism was innovative in its desire to document ordinary people in far-flung places. “Wait, but isn’t this in Los Angeles?” one student protests. “Yeah, but it’s all the way out in the Valley,” our professor says. I had moved to Chicago from the Valley only recently and I did not say anything, but the small flair of provincial resentment — from a woman in Chicago, some city in the damn Midwest no less — is what I remember from that day. If we’re so far-flung, why the definite article? Why no need to clarify “San Fernando”? I have no recollection at all of discussing Joan Didion that session or what slights against my California might have arisen during it. I didn’t begin to really absorb her, essay by essay, a few at first and then a great deal all at once, until I had graduated. I’ve only reached the novels in the last year; Play It As It Lays stays with me most, but I’m also told by a woman I know in Chicago that I can’t ever quite understand how well Didion finds the headspace of women who are off, just a little off, not quite enough to be as romantic as they imagine their offness to be.

What I suspect is that I did know CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC before I knew Didion — I hadn’t simply been too short to see up the flagpole or anything — but that I had forgotten it by the time I left the West and wanted, when I reached Illinois and found it again, to assign it to the person that put some meaning into the phrase for me. I didn’t really process those words presence on the flag until my most recent trip back home and by then I was already thinking about this essay. “Going back to California is not like going back to Vermont, or Chicago; Vermont and Chicago are relative constants against which one measures one’s own change. All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which is disappears,” she says in “Notes from a Native Daughter.” But the flag is constant. In returning I measured my own change, or at least I had changed enough to be inclined to look up and read what’s on top of the flagpole. I live in Chicago — that place does seem to be disappearing these days, or at least each time I come out of O’Hare it isn’t quite like I remember. Even the weather I’ve learned to expect, the particulars of the curved cement beams on each side of the permissible cigarette smoking zone on the lower level outside American Airlines and what the wind feels like down there and what coat I ought to pack even when it’s 50 degrees and I know it will be 70 in Los Angeles and then 15 when I am standing there after I return — all of that surprises me by changing. I was wearing an overcoat when I got there just last week and it was somehow 40 in November. Global warming, of course. I woke up this morning and was arbitrarily three years back still living on the South Side and I heard the bus that runs outside my window and remembered I am an adult and the whole gentrification-wandering artist dream was rolling out slowly and that that all really happened. That’s typical enough of sudden temporal displacement: there was nothing significant three years ago. The really unsettling return trips are to the mundane corners of the mind. California, at any rate, is the place that feels regular to me. We like driving there. I did then, I do now; the freeway feels the same.

But then Didion’s California is not my California except that, by her own standard, its proclivity for flux is some part of what makes California what it is. She says Sacramento is California — in her late 20s and early 30s, she is explicitly desperate to make the reader understand this — but I have only been to Sacramento once and I was in the fourth grade and somebody stole the camera my parents gave me to take pictures on the field trip.

“Did not the Donner-Reed Party, after all, eat its own dead to reach Sacramento?” Another question from “Notes from a Native Daughter.” Sure, but then, as when Didion grew up there, it didn’t have half the steak houses or Applebee’s it does now.

None of this is to dispute her account of the state, either in those early essays or in Where I Was From — if anything, the later book takes the task of disputing her earlier conceptions quite readily. It is only to say that the details don’t matter quite so much as the sense, even if it’s difficult to imagine she wouldn’t hate that. Didion writes about a California where memory is incongruous with the present, of legislators in 1948 wearing green hats on St. Patrick’s Day, and how “I still think of the legislatures that way — wearing green hats, or sitting around on the veranda of the Senator Hotel fanning themselves […] In fact there is no longer a veranda at the Senator Hotel.” But change doesn’t come so fast anymore, or it never did for me, in my own valley in California.

Let me explain. I was born in Valley Presbyterian Hospital and brought home to a house in the Valley and when I was three moved further west down Ventura and around then I began going to a school that still exists next to an orange grove. Later, I went to a parochial school where we had chapel twice weekly and one chapel every year was turned over to showing a black-and-white film short about how the school had come to be. (A film that, they were always keen to point out, had shown in real theaters before real features once upon a time.) A key point of the plot, which mainly involved the basically unopposed ambitions of a local clergyman to build a fairly standard high school, was that prior to World War II the Valley had been largely orange groves. It was only after the war ended and supplies were available and cheap that development really got going. I was embarrassed: I thought the modest grove near my old school was a substantial bit of nature. It turns out to be just a relic, one that hasn’t changed since then. The grove was never torn down to make room for more residents of the Valley because we have reached the point where relics are the better part of the Republic’s sense of self. The transformation was all a long time ago. We’re in a holding pattern now.

The best or perhaps most popular Didion statement on California from the period around “Notes from a Native Daughter” is this, that California is where “a boom mentality and a Chekhovian sense of loss meet in uneasy suspension,” and that beneath it all was the sense that “things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we ran out of continent.”

I don’t mean to say that the California Republic isn’t like that any more. Only that we’ve reached the most precarious part of the suspension, where the lines are taut, where the stillness does not imply stability, but rather the only way to avert a sudden, catastrophic fall. At least for a moment. At least right now. So the highways are still there and the orange grove is still there and studios and the highways too and the traffic is one constant noise, still in motion because nobody moves and everyone watches in a half-finished Los Angeles Times, as the drought severity bulletins become more menacing every day.

¤

In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” that first essay I read, the only essay of hers that many of her incidental readers know, Didion says this of the young people she’s encountered in Haight-Ashbury:

We were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words — words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips — their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

These children were my parents’ generation. My parents who will be issued Medicare this year; who will begin collecting Social Security at the latest, high-yield point of deferment two years hence. My parents who were not from California but settled there and did not marry until 35 and did not have me until nearly 40. I began at the school across the street from the orange grove the same year Joan Didion turned 60. They did well enough, those children, despite it all. Perhaps Didion is too fascinated by the right angles she sees in the generational forge. She was lost herself at the same age, except she was in New York, and she, even by 1967 was old enough and getting well enough along to have cashed the IOU against one’s youth that transforms all the sullen miasmas of the decade past into necessary prelude. Perhaps this is all beside the point. The Boomers, some of them at least, have their own retrospective tidiness now, and so it is strange for me, two generations past the people Didion saw as children, to make sense of whether she was right about the words. My parents seemed to speak just fine by the time I came around, but then they were older then than Didion was when she dismissed them.

But if this is about influence and about the occasion of a birthday perhaps it bears talking about what the children of children thinks of children so young that Didion might scarcely have noticed them.

I know this, at least: they are different now. Children have not failed to receive the transmission of values across the generational line. If the social game of Didion’s youth collapsed after the war, then the Boomers built a different one, one that in defiance of expectation kept the lights on in the world even if the fuel came at that world’s expense. If the network of aunts and cousins went away, the Boomers invented a new network of megabytes and wires, and this has done as good a job as any of teaching today’s child soldiers the game. It’s only that that game is “break the rules.” It’s only that the game itself is suspect. But we learned it, all wrapped up in rock and roll as the only set of young people for whom snobbishness was liking the same music as your parents.

The children now are not much at a loss for words either. They get them cheap and have them in abundance. They are a maw for neologism, yawning wide to where the strained edges of the mouth crack and taking them in by the bundle, turning great tongues over to somehow swallow and pronounce them back at the same time. Quite often during the past several years we have found ourselves unable to decode, speaking with an acute anxiety that we will be found out as improvisers, looking and leaping at once, secure only in knowing that the guesswork is the story, not the cover, the shibboleths metastasizing quicker than the contents, the doctrinaire inventing doctrine. Language no longer in the service of mutual understanding, now sworn to self-actualization above all things. I am so tired remembering what every kind of chip and beep and vibration heard across a room corresponds to while we walk over to slide the new screen door. A collective mind in fictive space negating the sum of its parts; info-graphic dictionaries for phrases heard wailing through the densely peopled wilderness. Battalions encamped at no place and all times sending coded messages before the latest cipher hits the wires.

I, too, am committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who, to indicate any facet of their person, will not settle for anything less than language they’ve invented, intelligible only with an accompanying translation.

I do believe we’ll manage. Each generation sees its own apocalypse and has its own colloquial sense of end times, but this game or some other will keep the lights on. It always does, so long as the drought doesn’t get any worse.

¤

The critical essay assumes that there is something to criticize, and as far as bets go that one remains safe. But there are times, more times than we are wont to comment on (what, after all, would the comment be?) that the prevailing consensus is right. The Beatles were good; Occupy was disorganized; there are fundamental injustices in the world beyond our meager capacity to correct.

Joan Didion was a keen and penetrating observer of a generation. Her style has influenced every American writer who followed. Of course. These things are true and the occasion of a major birthday does not require the universe to produce new wrinkles in the tale. We recognize that the world she observed has changed, but that her tools of observation can still be fruitfully applied. This much is true and requires no new argument to prove.

But then she keeps on living. She is still a physical thing in the world. She may be with us for a while. I am in Chicago now but a friend is in Sacramento and she says it isn’t like it was when she grew up there in the 1990s. Joan Didion is there, too, depending on what rumors you believe, and she may very well have something to say about all that.

¤

Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and playwright, originally from Los Angeles.


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