AUGUST 23, 2015
IN HIS REVIEW of Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, Jason Diamond seemed to speak for many in writing that “what Girl in a Band does is cements [Gordon’s] status as the Generation X version of Joan Didion: perpetually cool and somewhat detached, raised underneath the same golden California skies as Didion, but wise enough to know there’s a lot more than meets the eye.” An exciting proposition perhaps, but it’s an assessment that, while exceedingly kind to Gordon, struck me at the time as more than a little diminishing of Didion’s range and stature.
“Perpetually cool and somewhat detached” has threatened to become Didion’s legacy, particularly in these last few years. In the autumn of her life, she’s become a style icon, an octogenarian It Girl: anthologies have been written riffing off her famous “Goodbye to All That” essay; she’s appeared in Céline ads (“How cool is it that Céline chose her for their new ad campaign?” Gordon herself gushed to The New York Times. “I want those sunglasses.”); and the web magazine Literary Hub is selling tote bags with her picture on them. Tracy Daugherty’s massive biography The Last Love Song would seem to be one more example of this trend: taking on her “reputation as a public pulse taker” and astute observer of massive generational shifts, its cover employing the same Julian Wasser photo as the Literary Hub tote. Here, it would seem, is the final apotheosis of Saint Joan, the patron of cool.
Daugherty’s very long biography gives us a full, vibrant picture of Didion, the writer who in 1969 spoke candidly about her thoughts about divorce, and who, almost 40 years later, was equally candid about grieving. He follows the young girl growing up in Northern California who entertained herself “playing Donner party” to the young woman, fresh from UC Berkeley, walking away from a promising academic career and trying instead to make it in New York City as a journalist. (When she first applied for a job at Vogue, one question on the profile sheet asked, “What languages do you speak?” Didion wrote: “Middle English.”) He gives us her wedding to John Gregory Dunne, replete with references to Vertigo. And he gives us a writer who, for all the confidence of her prose, covered the Watts riots from the backseat of a car, terrified as she was of getting hurt.
Daugherty pledges early on not to “dish,” and The Last Love Song is for the most part blessedly free of gossip or score settling. He also opts not to go seeking for some overarching psychological theory that will reveal the hidden structure beneath Didion’s surface; there is no hack Freudian attempt to explain her work through unsubstantiated trauma. As a biography, then, it avoids ground that lazier writers too often tread. What he offers instead is “literary biography as cultural history,” a negotiation between her writing and her zeitgeist. For Daugherty, Didion’s “work does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing the mental and emotional rhythms. Any serious work about her should seek to do the same.” There is a great deal consolidated here about Didion’s marriage, her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, her life in Sacramento, in New York, in Los Angeles, and again in New York. Ex-lovers and ex-friends all play a part. But make no mistake: Daugherty’s primary interest here is in Didion’s work — in the writing itself.
The literary biography as cultural history certainly has its drawbacks, and there are moments in this very long work that occasionally drag — mostly when Daugherty is forced to rely on well-worn signposts of the 1960s and ’70s to contextualize Didion’s life. By the time we run through the Manson Family, Patty Hearst, and Jim Jones, the book threatens to become yet one more iteration of the Boomers’ Greatest (if Most Tragic) Hits. Though, to be fair, these are included because Didion wrote, or planned to write, about all of them. Without her cooperation, or that of the two people closest to her (her husband and daughter, who died in 2003 and 2005, respectively), this is perhaps as close as Daugherty can get. Indeed, many of the sources he interviews haven’t spoken to Didion in years or decades. He has no choice but to substitute the zeitgeist for intimacy.
But there is a more looming tension, one between the very genre of biography and the subject herself — or, perhaps, Daugherty’s desire to write a certain kind of biography and his subject’s explicit refusal to accept the role he has in mind. “The persona of ‘the writer’ does not attract me,” claims the narrator of Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted, and whether or not Didion herself stands behind this statement, it’s clear that Daugherty is very much interested the persona of the writer, and in a biography that defines Didion as a Writer with a capital W. Biographical details are presented first and foremost in relationship to her work, and her career is foreshadowed from early childhood as self-fulfilling prophecy, as when, for instance, her mother is introduced as her “first reader,” and epigraphs in the cemetery near her childhood home are described as offering a lesson in condensed narration.
Written without Didion’s participation, Daugherty’s book seems doomed to fail. Relying primarily on her already published oeuvre, it threatens to take the various autobiographical details spread out and woven through Didion’s books — each of which was placed meticulously to specific effect — and wrench them free from their original context into a rehashed chronology. A detail from The White Album is put alongside a tidbit from Blue Nights, simply because they both reference her life in the late 1960s, despite the fact that the two books otherwise have nearly nothing in common. Particularly for a writer who has already shared so many personal details without ever offering a holistic summary of her life, the most pressing question regarding The Last Love Song, at least at first blush, is: was it even a good idea? The work of biographer is to stitch together the disparate, random, and chaotic events of one’s life into a coherent narrative, and it is precisely this kind of fiction that Didion’s work, rightfully, I think, mistrusts.
This is not to say, however, that Didion herself, in the writing she’s best known for, doesn’t opt for a similar kind of universalizing sentiment. “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver,” begins one of her many essays on the city she called home for decades. It’s this kind of assuredness that makes her work so compelling: you’re carried away by her certainty, her way of stitching together disparate and chaotic events into coherent narratives that do not brook ambiguity or contention. It is basically caricature, but delivered so skillfully and with such conviction that you take it as gospel.
I’ve lived in California most of my life, mostly in San Jose and Los Angeles, and despite my affection for Didion’s descriptive capabilities, I’m always surprised at her utter inability to describe the life of anyone I know. These sweeping, mythologizing decrees about place, you realize, are nearly always, no matter how well-intentioned, attempts to obliterate ways of being for all those who do not fit the mold. Didion’s knack for detail is a means of giving frisson and heft to her proclamations, but as someone who’s spent 15 years in LA, her description of life in Malibu in the 1960s is as relevant to my world as one of life on the moon. (She gets the Santa Ana winds mostly right, but I’ll never forgive her for cutting the last line out of Chandler’s description when she quotes him in “Los Angeles Notebook”: it’s not just the last line, but the punch line, the whole point of the joke. Although, with Didion it’s never a joke; everything is serious. Another reason her depictions of LA always feel wrong.)
Much of Didion’s writing about LA reads not as accurate description of the city but as penance for her great sin of leaving New York, and as perpetually holding open the door to her eventual return. Her real audience is not Los Angeles, nor America as a whole, but the New York publishing world. (For Didion, then as now, the space between the coasts does not exist. So thoroughly focused is she on California and New York that in Miami, Florida comes across as foreign — and nearly as dangerous — as her fictional country Boca Grande.) But the same confidence with which she writes to this audience, the very quality that makes her proclamations so compelling, is also what alienates anyone who doesn’t immediately identify with her pronouncements.
Of course, it’s possible that I just don’t get it, or wasn’t meant to. In her appraisal of Didion, Caitlin Flanagan put forth a strong case not just for Didion’s two most well known collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, but also for the specificity of her readership.
If you love Joan Didion so much that she fundamentally changed the way you think — and there are many who feel this way — the books that did this to you are those two and no others. […] [A]nd to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.
There’s a great deal of nonsense here, of course, but Flanagan is not entirely wrong in proclaiming that Didion’s reputation these days rests almost entirely on those two books, along with the novel from that same period, Play It As It Lays, and then her two most recent books on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. (Though Flanagan herself is dismayed by Blue Nights, which reveals, at long last, that Didion has become old.)
Everything else — the middle period of Didion’s work, from roughly 1977 through to 2001 — has more or less ceased to exist for many readers. As Flanagan would have it, the young, chic waif leaning against a Corvette, ditching New York for Malibu, has emerged as if from some cryogenic freeze, as the grieving wife and mother, baring all with searing honesty as she narrates the deaths of her husband and daughter.
What she is not, according to this popular conception, is political, even though half of her published books are explicitly about politics. It takes some doing to forget Didion wrote A Book of Common Prayer, Salvador, Miami, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted, Political Fictions, and Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11, and yet we appear to want to remember her as a writer whose primary selling points are cool chic and a knack for describing Southern California’s fire season, along with a coda of mourning.
I’m not female, apparently, because I fell in love with Didion not via Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album — though I do dearly love both books, and have taught the former for years — but via her 1977 novel A Book of Common Prayer, which I read at 22, in my first week of graduate school, having just moved to Southern California. I fell in love with the book because it’s about a failure of storytelling: a failure to narrate, a failure to know omnisciently, a failure to represent. It begins with a confidence in narration that’s brutally undercut by the novel’s closing pages, reminding you throughout, as the narrator Grace Strasser-Mendana puts it, of “the equivocal nature of even the most empirical evidence.”
This is one of the most prominent preoccupations in Didion’s work. You find it in her masterful Salvador, for example, which ranks alongside Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Soccer War in its ability to present the simultaneous brutality and absurdity of war, and begins with the remark that to land at San Salvador’s airport “is to plunge directly into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.” You find it in the political writing of Miami, After Henry, and Political Fictions, and in her novels Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted, with their constantly shifting landscapes of hearsay, aliases, and the nebulous exchanges of guns, money, and lives.
But this belief in ambiguity isn’t often found in her most beloved writings, where she confidently speaks for whole generations and entire cities. As she herself writes in her 1990 essay on the Central Park Jogger case, seemingly critiquing so much of what she’s written elsewhere,
The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities.
This assessment reads as a savage rebuke to the writer of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, written from the perspective of one much wiser, one who understands much better than her younger self ever could that writers are always selling somebody out.
This Didion is much harder to romanticize than the young ingénue smoking a cigarette in Julian Wasser’s portraits. Perhaps this is why readers tend to skip over Didion’s political writing, though it’s also the case that the writerly persona here is much more difficult to pin down. Her political writing of the 1980s and ’90s is powerful precisely because it never sums up or glosses over. Didion refuses to accept not only the party line, but that there is any line — any progressive or conservative or libertarian narrative that can be laid over the messy reality of the world.
It’s true that within the opening years of the millennium she emerged as a strident spokesperson against the rhetorical duplicity of the Bush administration, castigating the slippery language that used the events of September 11 to justify the invasion of Iraq. But she was not, even then, hyperpartisan — she had equal disdain for the Democrats’ constant politicking; still, this was a far cry from her earlier writings, when she preferred Goldwater over Reagan and Nixon because they were too liberal. Take, for example, that iconic essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: the opening two paragraphs are among the finest written in the history of form, a master class in craft in and of themselves; but what I’m constantly forgetting is that the rest of that essay relies on conservative hand-wringing — on a schoolmarm fretting that, once again, the kids are not all right. (Had the piece been written today, she would’ve worried not about the hippies but about violent video games, or sexting.) And then there’s her shrill denunciation of feminism in The White Album, which now reads as downright embarrassing.
Daugherty’s ability to parse this evolution is itself noteworthy: he treats these contradictions less as evolutions towards the “correct” or “final” worldview, than as moments in a life lived with contradictions. In her early books she turned to the hippies, The Doors, the Black Panthers, and Manson as symptoms of cultural decline; in her later years it was Saigon, Nicaragua, and major party conventions. Ultimately, though, she seemed to view everyone, from the Weather Underground to Reagan to Clinton, as part of the same continuum, in love with ideology and rhetoric rather than anything approaching an ethical commitment. As Daugherty writes, “In Didion’s view, politics was essentially a planet-wide arms deal.” At one point in A Book of Common Prayer the young radical Marin Douglas says, “The fact that our organization is revolutionary in character, is due above all to the fact that all our activity is defined as revolutionary.” One gets the sense that this tautology, with all of its solemn nonsense, its sound and its fury, could stand in for nearly all political rhetoric in Didion’s mind.
Writers who emulate Didion’s canonical essays ignore this vein of her writing at their own peril. Revisiting Didion’s political novels, one finds a refreshing level of ambiguity, a refusal to allow the standard tools of fiction — narrative, characterization, figural language — to provide a bedrock of meaning in a shifting landscape of confusion and deceit. As Daugherty writes of these books,
Didion’s whole point was that the modern American novelist can no longer depend on traditional references or methods to be keys of any sort: Our national politics have compromised language too thoroughly. […] Democracy frets about words, their ubiquitous misuse in our public discourse. The novel is an intense, fractured, and groping attempt to rescue words and restore them to their “integrity.”
Such a belief is no longer in vogue in our post-postmodernist age, when narrative realism once again reigns, and words and symbolism are once more taken as sure and stable, but the foregrounding of these somewhat forgotten works in The Last Love Song is one of its great and unexpected pleasures. It may be a bit of a stretch to claim, as Daugherty does, that “Democracy is one of the finest achievements of 20th-century American fiction,” but it is certainly damn good, and certainly important in these times.
And this is the brilliant trick that Daugherty manages to pull off in The Last Love Song. By weaving Didion’s life and her work into a coherent, unified narrative, he resuscitates her middle period — precisely the work that most explicitly resists the coherent and the unified. The paradox being that by refusing to allow us to skip straight from The White Album to The Year of Magical Thinking, Daugherty makes the case that Didion’s best writing is the writing we want most to forget — the difficult, the unstylish — the writing that confounds our easy assumptions, and so reminds us that Didion as a style icon is far less interesting, and far less durable, than Didion the masterly political novelist.
Reading The Last Love Song alongside Didion’s entire oeuvre calls attention to a fundamental contradiction within Didion. She would seem to be two writers: the one that delves into ambiguity and the one that relies on declarative flourishes. The biographer who attempts to yoke them into a single writerly persona seems fated to shortchange either or both of these impulses. Except, the thing about Didion’s tendency towards the sweeping, definitive, final gesture — it is never as definitive or as final as it seems.
Her first essays about Los Angeles started appearing in the mid-1960s, but she wrote about the city as long as she lived there, and even after she said “Hello” once more to All That. The California essays in After Henry, coming over 20 years after those in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, would seem almost redundant — except for the fact that they suggest almost a compulsion to repeat, as if she kept not quite getting it right and kept needing to go back. Indeed, as she says in Where I Was From,
Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.
Her confidence, then, is misleading. She was always worrying the thought, correcting and revising and revisiting the same central topics, never quite satisfied.
Daugherty’s book ultimately succeeds, because of his ability to see Didion not as an immutable icon of cool, but as someone whose ideas and whose writing shifted constantly, radically. In fusing biography with bibliography, The Last Love Song gives us a writer’s life not as a bildungsroman, with the inexorable progress towards a foregone conclusion, but instead as a continually evolving and dynamic process, the act of which often only tangentially and coincidentally intersects with the writer herself.