I FIRST READ JOAN DIDION when I was in my teens and still living in England. The book was Play It As It Lays, a novel, her second, written in a sequence of very short chapters tracing the downward spiral of Maria Wyeth, a failing thirty-one year old actress. I saw that it was a very bleak and even dangerous book. Yet it seemed romantic to me too, with a Camus-like allure to its desiccated nihilism. Here's Maria, barefooted and in her hot little silver vinyl dress, having just fucked an actor she's only just met and doesn't like very much. But — this is the Didion touch — she likes him not knowing her, and her not liking him:
After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning not towards Beverly Hills but towards the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas, and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o'clock before she reached Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother's and father's graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah, and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.
Sex, theft, death, a Ferrari — what was not to like? Having already devoured Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, and the complete works of Raymond Chandler, I saw Play It As It Lays as another key to the city I had yet to visit but which already mesmerized me. I became infatuated with Los Angeles first through books, not movies; I conceived of the city as a literary artefact, and Play It As It Lays was a part of that early love affair.
"In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning," Didion writes, describing Maria en route to some other random assignation:
so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on the distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oil derricks creaked ominously.
The ploughed furrows of firebreaks on the distant mountains: the author's observation, surely, not zoned-out Maria's, and I gleaned from this that, unlike Chandler, West, and Fitzgerald, Didion was a California native, and on different terms with the landscape around her, intimate with it, watchful of it, fearful. In her prose, she defined and furthered the image of the places that made up her own DNA.
Didion is a writer to whom readers — and, perhaps especially, writers — tend to stake a personal claim. She's always affected her audience this way. She's both irritant and seductress. It's to do with her voice, mannered and distant, yet with spiky shards of emotion spiking through. Didion is so afraid of her own depths of feeling she can't avoid revealing them. That's her contradiction, her fascination. I've always had the idea that she's speaking to me directly, especially when she's writing about California. No doubt many people feel the same way: it's the illusion of intimacy her writing creates. Some of her other stuff — the book-length essays Miami and Salvador, and the novel Democracy, for instance — leaves me cold. Even her book about the Central Valley, Where I Was From, seemed to lack the crackle and somehow particularly feminine electricity I keep going back to in the reportage of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Those books, so fixed in their era, now seem timeless. "This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go," she writes in The White Album of coping with her depression in the years between 1966 and 1971, nailing, both for herself, and for anybody else who's stood on Santa Monica Boulevard in the cruel afternoon sun and known themselves to be a faker and a con artist, the particular sense of self-alienation that only Los Angeles can invoke.
By the turn of the millennium, I guess I'd rather given up on the new work of this scary, sexy writer. She seemed unlikely to pack any more surprises. How wrong I was.
In a sense, not much has changed: Didion's underlying subjects have always been loss and dread. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays she externalizes these symptoms in ominous disaster-prone environments and the alienated lives of her characters: murderers, say, or would-be suicides, who always seemed to be viewed as if from behind a predator's pair of sunglasses. This early work contrives to reek of both doom and glamour. Didion's native California offered up the doom in bountiful portion, while she herself, wary as she's always been, couldn't help but provide the rest. Fast forward forty years and the camera angle of her work has shifted. Perspectives have changed, deepened, darkened further still. The movement has been from a higher reportage that features the author to a more naked and poetic form of autobiography. Didion no longer worries at the issue of how explicitly she, as narrator, should be involved in the story she's trying to tell. The terrible experiences aren't observed or imagined but wrenched, agonizingly, from the inside out.
The background to this late shift in style is simple, shocking, and by now well-established. In 2003 Didion watched her beloved longtime husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, die of a heart attack at the dinner table, only days after their daughter, Quintana Roo, already hospitalized with pneumonia, had fallen into septic shock and coma. When Quintana regained consciousness, Didion had to tell her about her father's death; shortly thereafter, Quintana herself died. Didion, the seer of disaster, was visited by her own most unspeakable fears, and from her grief she has spun haunting and majestic incantations of sorrow.
The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005, dealt largely with her marriage to Dunne and the bereavement that weakened her knees, blinded her eyes, and obliterated the daily routine of her life. Now comes Blue Nights, which is mostly about Quintana Roo; and, while following naturally and painfully enough from The Year of Magical Thinking, it is a very different sort of book.
Blue Nights isn't so much a Kaddish for Quintana as a confession at nightfall. Guilt, rather than grief, is the overwhelming emotion. "I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents," Didion writes:
Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies.
Blue Nights, then, is Didion's personal rosary, a litany of her own perceived maternal failures. She tells us about a daughter who was adopted and adored, a brilliant and beautiful tow-headed girl who was, nonetheless, haunted by fears of abandonment; who grew up in Malibu and Brentwood in the shadow of her parents' consuming careers, hanging out with rock bands and movie stars, trailing them from one grand hotel to the next; who wanted to embrace the members of her biological family when they sought her out, and then couldn't quite handle their clinging otherness. Quintana the character remains somehow shadowy, as if glimpsed in fragments of home movies, flickering in the dark. Later in her short life, she finds herself, becoming a photo-editor and a happily married woman. Then she's snatched away, dead before the age of forty.
"When we think about adopting a child, or for that matter about having a child at all, we stress the 'blessing' aspect," Didion writes:
We omit the instant of the sudden chill, the "what-if," the free fall into certain failure.
What if I fail to take care of this baby?
What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?
And, worse yet, so much worse as to be unthinkable, except I did think it, everyone who has ever waited to bring a baby home thinks it: what if I fail to love this baby?
Except I did think it: Didion is as unsparing with herself as she's ever been with her invented characters, or the objects of her reportorial gaze.
The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are, of course, great books that Didion would rather not have had to write. From the tension between compulsion and reluctance springs their magic. The prose still prizes control, while the intuition, as always, predicts chaos. This is the sad testament of a stoic yet obsessed survivor, gnawing at her own entrails with pained panache. The worst can indeed come to pass.