Lost and Found: Reading Joan Didion in California
By Scott BradfieldJanuary 1, 2020
Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s by Joan Didion
For one thing, my love for books divided me from everybody, including my family — most of whom seemed to be busily doing the things people were supposed to do, such as socializing, developing professional careers, dating, and watching television. With the exception of my mother, who read less as she grew ill in the late ’60s, most people I knew didn’t read anything and those that did read passed around the usual cultish ’60s books that, I’m sorry to say, never stopped being cultish books over the next half century, such as Catch-22, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I always hated that book), Fahrenheit 451, and the novels of Hesse, Kesey, and Vonnegut. Occasionally, someone introduced me to something unusual, such as Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, George Stewart’s Earth Abides, or Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon; but, for the most part, when anyone came to my room and saw the secondhand bookshelves filled with paperbacks — most of which I purchased or stole from the local Woolworth’s — they looked at me askance and made clear that they had better things to do with their time than read books, or walk to the store to buy books, or try to write books themselves — which were, of course, the only things I ever did. (And to be totally honest, I haven’t done much else since.)
But even more significant to my poorly developing self-image, it was hard to imagine any important writer living my life. I’m speaking specifically about a life in either Daly City or San Luis Obispo, the two cities where I spent my youth. There weren’t any writers showing up at career days or wandering in and out of my home or the homes of friends and neighbors. Instead, everybody with “grown-up” jobs did sensible things like work as machinists, or auto repairmen, or administrators in local schools and government buildings — a lot of jobs that, quite frankly, puzzled me then and still puzzle me now. (Seriously, I have no idea what most people do for a living.) And, however widely I read, and however many writers I read about, there didn’t seem to be many California writers running loose among them. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure what being a Californian meant. I didn’t know then and I don’t know much more now.
Sure, lots of writers ended up in California (Daniel Fuchs, Fitzgerald, Edgar Rice Burroughs), or started out there before moving somewhere else (Jean Stafford, Shirley Jackson). But most of them didn’t write much about California, or whatever it meant to be a part of the large, diverse, geographically various region I called home. Most of the books I read took place in exotic, faraway places like New York, Paris, or London — which seemed as fantastic and deliberately imagined as those depicted in my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, such as Dune or The Martian Chronicles. No matter how much fiction I read, none of it involved people like me, or the places I inhabited.
In fact, everything about myself seemed dissociated from the fiction I enjoyed. And this sense of dissociation bothered me.
And so I began paying special attention to writers who were born and spent most of their lives in California, writers who had grown up with the same limitations and opportunities as I had. The first to attract my interest as a “Californian” (and no, I still don’t quite know what that means) was Jack London. When my high school English teacher, Mr. Holden, gave me a battered old digest-sized copy of Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone’s rather clunky, absorbing bio-fiction of London’s life, I read it in two nights, then went on to read everything I could find by London. (This meant overcoming a childhood aversion to The Call of the Wild — which, read to me out loud each night by my father when I was five, scared the hell out of me.) The adventure stories were good — such as The Sea-Wolf, filled with those great argumentative battles with the intellectually relentless Wolf Larsen — but after just the first few pages, I much preferred Martin Eden, about a young man who falls simultaneously in love with books and a beautiful young woman, and works himself to despair while pursuing them.
In addition to those great sweeping romantic writerly dreams (how could you not find them attractive when living in the dreamless suburb of Daly City?), Martin Eden journeyed across streets and neighborhoods I knew — Sonoma, San Francisco, and Oakland. And while I was only minimally familiar with the back-breaking manual labor London described so beautifully (I did once scrub thickly soiled cookie sheets in a bakery for three days before the boss fired me for being too slow), the world wasn’t — like Fitzgerald’s Princeton, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha — completely foreign. Most of all, London made the innately dull life of a California writer sound intimately fascinating — and in order to attach myself to his vision, I affected wearing a “working-class” cloth cap and talked about joining the Merchant Marines. But talk, I am glad to report, was as close as I ever got to the endless discipline of a sea-going life. And as for the cloth cap, it provoked so much teasing from other students — one of whom, a spectral, distracted-looking dark-haired kid who seemed perpetually stoned, regularly greeted me with: “Hey, Mr. Golfing Cap! When are you going golfing?” Eventually, I couldn’t put the cap on without hearing his caustic voice in my head, so I threw it away.
There were, of course, other great California writers — from Steinbeck and Saroyan, to Leigh Brackett and Jack Vance, to Ross Macdonald, John Fante, and Bukowski (who didn’t prove enjoyable until I read him in my late 40s for a review); but none of them — writing about the Salinas Valley, say, or describing the complicated Oedipean family histories of California’s upper crust — made me feel that their territories were my territories. My territories seemed undramatic by comparison — involving quietly ashamed divorced families in tract homes who suffered inchoate dreams of finding a better life that never materialized. The people I grew up with didn’t explore, or have much interest in, the world outside their dull neighborhoods and television sets. They (like me) didn’t know much about the world, and their opinions about politics and history were little more than awkward sequences of enthusiasms or rages. Overall, the suburbs of my youth seemed innately story-less. Our lives didn’t possess anything resembling a beginning, a middle, or an end, and I couldn’t imagine writing about the people who lived there, especially those like myself.
Which is probably why Joan Didion was one of most significant writers of my youth; and while I never read her as devotedly as some of my favorite writers (Richard Yates, Brian Moore, Simenon, Chekhov), she quickly established a sense of fictional identity that was far more firm to me and, in weird way, comforting, than that of just about any other writer I ever read.
For good or bad, I can’t imagine my young adult life without Joan Didion in it.
It’s not easy to recall when and where I first read Didion — even though I distinctly recall the first time I picked up and read Richard Yates (a mass market paperback of Revolutionary Road found stranded on the shelves of a children’s bookstore on Clement Street in the early ’70s), or Brian Moore (a late-’70s reprint of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne purchased in a newspaper kiosk at Burbank airport on a Christmas flight home, during which I read the first hundred pages without getting up from my seat). At first, there was just the anonymous oddness of Didion’s last name, and the fact that I saw it recurring in the pages of book review sections, or on the cover of The New York Review of Books. But what quickly distinguished Didion in my mind was that she wrote about California as a Californian, and she did so with neither the usual Hollywood glitz about sunsets and beach-front holidays nor the derisory, disparaging attitude evinced by critics who didn’t live here. (“So, are you dudes and babes all really relatin’ and communin’ with your chakras?” Et cetera.)
From her first pages, Didion spoke like someone with a brain who wasn’t quite ashamed of her California-ness, but who was probably just ashamed enough. She wrote about places, people, and activities that were part of my world — watching monster movies, listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors, walking along Romaine Street in L.A. (where my Aunt Jean had lived for decades in an overpriced little one-bedroom apartment not far from Howard Hughes) or the Haight District (where I often hung out with friends); she wrote about Morro Bay, John Wayne, Joan Baez, and Patty Hearst (the SLA abandoned one of their cars around the block from us in Daly City, and I often, when going to used bookstores, walked past the bank where the beret-wearing “Tania” first appeared). And she approached each topic or personality with a smooth, bright clarity of phrase and paragraph that always made me feel like, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s it exactly.”
And while she came from what sounded like a middle-class background in Sacramento that was a lot different from mine, it was a place I could, at least remotely, understand. I mean, she went to Berkeley, and I knew kids who went to Berkeley. And she got rejected from Stanford — and, let’s face it, nobody I knew ever stood a chance at getting into Stanford. Even more, she moved south (as I did) when she got older, establishing a large part of her life in Los Angeles — the same place I moved after graduating high school. After all, Los Angeles was filled with writers and secondhand bookstores and movie theaters and that great all-night newsstand on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. And while books weren’t exactly prevalent in Los Angeles, they weren’t so hypothetical as they were in Daly City. The scorecard was obvious even to someone as dumb as me: Daly City Writers — 0; Los Angeles Writers — Uncountable.
So I moved. Like Didion.
Before I even knew she existed, Didion was a part of my life. And she has remained a part of it ever since.
In the opening essay to the first Didion book I read, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), she took the time to write about one of the spaces I was often passing through, and which had never existed before (to my limited knowledge) in literature — the San Bernardino Valley, a place “settled” and quickly “abandoned” by Mormons that would
draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air. […] The graft took in curious ways. This is the California where it is easy to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else.
Just retyping these sentences reminds me how, when I first read them, Didion knew more about my life than I did. And despite her caustic, slightly bemused tone, Didion never sounded cruel or disrespectful. She was as absorbed and concerned by her native landscape as she was unsettled by it. And she expressed the facts of how she saw and heard Californians as facts, moments of disinterested observation, not judgments. She spoke clearly about who Californians were while remaining one of them.
These were the people and spaces I had been living with before Didion came along, filled with bookless Staci’s and Kimberly’s and Debbi’s whose only distinct ambition was the dress they would wear at their wedding, with Capri pants, Dial-a-Gratification telephone services, and the half-recognized realization that murdering for love à la James M. Cain was a distinctly Californian narrative. (At the time, I couldn’t even imagine that a serious critic would have anything interesting to say about Cain, whose work I adored.) And then there was one killer line coming along after another, suggesting that every sentence wasn’t simply articulating a statement or idea but rather launched into existence the humming recognition that something was happening out here in the West, even if most of us couldn’t explain what it was. Didion either articulated ideas I didn’t know I had or instilled in me words that helped make my ideas comprehensible.
And the primary idea was this: that “we,” as Californians, suffered from a dissolute identity because we had been born with the unexamined belief that we could be anybody; we just didn’t know who the hell that anybody was yet. And yes, we lived in a “golden land,” air-quotes included, where wealth resided everywhere except in our pockets; and the inexhaustible frontier allowed us to remake our boundaries every day, like John Wayne, Bishop Pike, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Patty Hearst. And if things grew too constrictive or claustrophobic, we could always get divorced, plan a perfect Cain-style murder, buy a new car or trailer, move to the next town that looked an awful lot like the last town, and reimagine our “selves,” race, career, identity, and ambitions as the mood suited. And, of course, the mood always suited, since we might well change our mind again tomorrow. We couldn’t recall the past, and we couldn’t abide the present, but no matter. Tomorrow would be different. And we would be different, too.
Every time I reread that line about living in “the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else,” it feels like Didion is stooping down to whisper it in my ear. Even the reference to Mormons sets off a little frisson — since one of the few facts I ever knew about my history was that some of my father’s family came west with the Mormons, while some of my mother’s came west with the Quakers. Like the people Didion writes best about, we came from everywhere except where we already were.
Again and again, as I read Didion during my mid-teens through late 20s, I felt this unspoken sense of concord. And the way she expressed these ideas in sharp, dispassionate, funny sentences continually intrigued me, as if she weren’t communicating truths so much as establishing a shared experience. It was, for lack of a better word, her “art.”
And it is hard to imagine my life without the art of Joan Didion.
Rereading the “early” Didion in this excellent, handsomely bound edition from Library of America felt a lot like visiting the person I once was, or even the person I once pretended to be, and I can’t say it’s an entirely welcome experience — much like recalling myself striding around in that stupid Jack London–style flat cap. I find myself rereading her in two different ways — both as the writer who taught me about style, clarity, and California-ness, and as someone I know so well that I can’t stop noting her faults. She disappoints me in ways that only a writer who matters can disappoint me.
Over those early decades, Didion spread herself too thin over a variety of forms and genres. First, there were the bright, hard little personal essays and profiles, often related to her native West; then there were the longer topical essays, two of which provided titles for her nonfiction books, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1967) and “The White Album” (1968–’78). Then there were the Hollywood film scripts — including The Panic in Needle Park (1971), A Star Is Born (1976), and Up Close & Personal (1996) — written with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. And finally, the novels, which arrived briskly in her early years, and soon tapered off.
I often feel that the Joan Didion I most enjoyed was not the Didion who is best known to readers and critics. For example, those short, light, deft — what some might call “frivolous” or “too Californian” — essays and profiles of Joan Baez, John Wayne, and Bishop Pike, or her family memoirs, such as “On Going Home” (1967) and “Notes of a Native Daughter” (1965) — still recall those conceptual “gotcha” moments from my youth, when it seemed that only Didion could write about California lives in those agate-hard, glittering sentences that felt so solid you could hold them in your hand. Each paragraph led through a series of strangely coordinated little facts and observations until landing at one of those always-surprising, always-inevitable last lines that made you rethink the entire paragraph. As in this, one of my favorite of her paragraphs, from the opening of “On Going Home” (1967):
By “home” I do not mean the house in Los Angeles where my husband and I and the baby live, but the place where my family is, in the Central Valley of California. It is a vital although troublesome distinction. My husband likes my family but is uneasy in their house, because once there I fall into their ways, which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways. We live in dusty houses (“D-U-S-T,” he once wrote with his finger on surfaces all over the house, but no one noticed it) filled with mementos quite without value to him […] and we appear to talk exclusively about people we know who have been committed to mental hospitals, about people we know who have been booked on drunk-driving charges, and about property, particularly about property[.] […] Nor does he understand that when we talk about sale-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations we are talking in code about the things we like best, the yellow fields and the cottonwoods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in. We miss each other’s points, have another drink and regard the fire. My brother refers to my husband, in his presence, as “Joan’s husband.” Marriage is the classic betrayal.
Those are the sorts of sentences and paragraphs that made me love Didion — the development of facts, family conversations, images of the land, and the occasional experiential detail (of writing “D-U-S-T” in the dust of old homes), concluding with that perfect line about marriage being “the classic betrayal” of one’s original family. Didion made facts add up to more than the sum of their parts. Human lives emerged. As in “Marrying Absurd” (1967), where Didion jots down a series of things seen and overheard in the Las Vegas “wedding business.” Every item sounds and tastes like the crude, clumsy, and heartbreakingly sincere expression of familiar people and places, ultimately embraced by Didion’s critical summation of Vegas as “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to the immediate gratification.”
In these pieces, Didion sees through the meretricious ugliness of Western life — all those “stained-glass paper windows” and “artificial bouvardia” and strip malls offering “sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent” — to uncover one neat little essential truth: that Las Vegas (like Los Angeles) may appear tacky and excessively sequined, but it also provides a service to rough Westerners who don’t know how they’re supposed to behave, and so they look for a manufactured space that can show them how to behave “properly.” Getting married (or divorced) in Vegas provides one essential comfort: “[T]he facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it, how to make the arrangements, how to do it ‘right.’” (At a dinner party of Californians, most of us don’t know what the hell to do with that weird-looking little fork.)
But what marks out so many of these pieces, especially the shortest, most pungent ones, is a sense of conclusion that isn’t derogatory or dismissive — as so many essays about California-ness are; instead, they betray an almost sentimental affection. There’s something refreshing about the weird enthusiasms that Didion observes, as when she sits beside a wedding party at a “Strip restaurant” where the “bored waiter” pours pink champagne for everyone but the bride (she’s too young to drink) and the bride begins to cry. No, it’s not with a sense of despair at her impending, meaningless life. And it’s not in disappointment with all the tacky, reusable paraphernalia. “‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, “as I hoped and dreamed it would be.” How horrible, I can’t help thinking when I read these essays. And yet, at the same time, how “nice.”
This sense of mutual duplicity, shared by observer and observed, is one of the things that makes Didion’s best essays remarkable. But when it comes to the longer, better-known pieces, I wouldn’t trade one “Marrying Absurd” for 10 “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”s, an essay that remains as disappointing to me now as when I first read it 40-some years ago. In these longer, moodier pieces, Didion announced the “death of the sixties” at almost every opportunity, until the ’60s were already long gone. For all her intelligence and clarity, there’s something too apparent of the Goldwater-voting sorority girl in these essays, as if Didion didn’t observe the world so much as take notes for an ass-kicking later. “Slouching” is a despondent travelogue of ’60s San Francisco, especially around the Haight, assembling a series of tight, serial mini-adventures with lost kids, drug dealers, undercover cops, and aspiring wannabees (“Basically, I’m a poet,” one young girl says, “but I had my guitar stolen right after I arrived, and that kind of hung up my thing”). Didion gathers these disconnected, postmodern snippets under an umbrella title suggesting demonic forces shambling apocalyptically through outdoor “happenings,” college demonstrations, and Janis Joplin concerts — which seems like a frivolous misuse of demonic forces.
At one point, like a Pynchon character catching a whiff of some deep conspiracy, she goes looking for a local figure named Chester Anderson. In the course of several mysterious late-night conversations and phone calls, she meets a man whom she refers to in quotes as an Anderson “associate,” who delivers some Cold War spy-dialogue about how he’ll check with Anderson: “If we decide to get in touch with you at all […] we’ll get in touch with you real quick.” Didion makes Anderson sound like Balzac’s Vautrin in Lost Illusions, some secret puppeteer presiding over criminals and cops — when Anderson was actually nothing more menacing than a coffee-house poet, journalist (he went on to edit the influential pop-culture magazine Crawdaddy), and eventual Hugo-nominated science-fiction novelist. (One of Anderson’s friends from that time, novelist Michael Kurland, recently told me: “My feeling about Didion’s appraisal of the time/place is that she just didn’t get it. Like almost all the movies and TV shows set amid the Beats or hippies, to someone who was part of the scene it just doesn’t sound right.”) Which all leads me to conclude that, when Didion knew a place, she knew it well. But when she didn’t know a place, she couldn’t always bother to get out of the car and examine it properly.
“If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest,” Didion wrote, “I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.” That’s a fair personal confession. But as a journalist writing about young people who did go to the barricades to oppose bad wars, civil disenfranchisement, sexism, racism, and governmental malfeasance, she doesn’t sound fair at all. There’s something about Didion that not only missed what was best about the ’60s but sincerely wished that the best hadn’t happened.
What especially interests me in this new edition is the inclusion of Didion’s first three novels, Run River (1963), Play It as It Lays (1970), and A Book of Common Prayer (1977). For, while her novels display the same unevenness as her other work, they suggest that fiction suited her particular talent and temperament. For one thing, fiction allowed her to develop her eye for detail and California voices with the same dispassionate, non-judgmental tone that marked her best nonfiction; and her natural reticence to get out of the car in strange neighborhoods wouldn’t get in her way, since the great thing about fiction is that a writer can choose the neighborhoods their characters inhabit.
Run River is a much better novel than I remembered, with an almost Steinbeckian sense of the way families control one another through children and property; and in it she develops a character she enjoys spending time with — a young, attractive, dissociative woman who feels as uninvolved in her life as she does in the lives of others. But Didion’s second novel, Play It as It Lays, proves even more successful. Maria Wyeth — a minor actress drifting through the big homes, blue pools, and broken marriages of Los Angeles’s “golden” lives — prefers to allow landscape to determine her direction; she doesn’t want to make decisions for herself. In flat, bright, lyrical little scenes, Maria moves from one relationship to another, one hospitalization to another, one life-muffling drug to another, and one freeway exchange to another. Play perfectly captured the beat and ambience of Los Angeles in the mid-’70s — a world of too much sun, too many people having more fun that you are, and too many nice cars driving past other people in different cars driving past them. And in what would have to be the prevailing Didion metaphor, Maria routinely enjoys spending her lonely nights driving nowhere as intrepidly as she can:
Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1 …
Unlike Bret Easton Ellis — who took the random disaffection of Didion’s characters to Grand Guignol extremes — Didion kept her people planted firmly on the road, even when the road was going nowhere. Play It as It Lays remains one of my favorite Southern California novels.
The problem with Didion’s fiction — and perhaps one that made writing fiction difficult for her — was that her characters lacked enough ambition to act: they followed roads blindly in circles and didn’t chart their own courses, and so her plots never develop momentum or reach resolution. Sometimes, as in her third novel A Book of Common Prayer, it’s hard to tell where the plot even begins, if it ever does, or who it’s happening to. Instead of a story, there’s just this general sense of discord and anomie that slowly fades away over a couple of hundred pages, while the central “protagonist” (though she never does much protagonizing), a Marlow-like (as in Conrad, not Chandler) observer, presides over everything, like Didion in her essays, with a creepy equanimity. After the near perfection of Play, Didion’s third novel loses track of itself as the bodies mount up in an imaginary central American country called Boca Grande. Didion read Conrad with as much devotion as many of us now read her, but she never learned to put a novel together like Conrad, whose complicated political identity never permitted him to treat characters like puppets — they always breathed and thought for themselves. Instead, Didion’s unclearly formulated political identity prevents her characters from doing anything, and it’s hard to read A Book of Common Prayer without feeling as divorced from the central character, Charlotte Douglas, as Charlotte is from the violent actions taken by her estranged, Patty Hearst–like, middle-class-girl-turned-terrorist daughter, Marin.
Didion clearly admired Conrad. But the European writer she most resembles is the early Jean Rhys.
It’s unfair to wish the writers we admire had not written some of the books they wrote or made the professional decisions they made. And while I find some things about Didion’s work disappointing on this latest rereading, it’s also impossible not to enjoy again all those other things that made me read her in the first place. If I were to sum up my complicated feelings about a complicated writer I have long admired, I would simply say this: more than any California writer I can think of, she made me feel at home. And that wasn’t always entirely a good thing.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).
LARB Staff Recommendations
From Watching to Participating: Kate Bredeson and Lars Jan Discuss 1968 and Jan’s Stage Production of Joan Didion’s “The White Album”
Kate Bredeson and Lars Jan discuss 1968 and Jan’s stage production of Joan Didion’s “The White Album.”...
Didion's latest "South and West": irredeemably past, and yet speaking to the current impasse....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.