California cool and Magical Thinking / Joan Didion at 86

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Star quality … Joan Didion, c1977. Photograph: Everett

California cool and Magical Thinking: Joan Didion at 86

Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing

Alex Clark

Monday 8 February 2021

To think about Joan Didion, you have to confront two things before you get to the words: the pictures and the anecdotes. If you’re interested in certain aspects of the culture – American counterculture in the 1960s, California, female writers – the pictures are familiar, if not ingrained. There’s Didion in her long dress with long hair, smoking, leaning against her Corvette Stingray; standing up in its sunroof; lolling out of the driver’s window, in Julian Wasser’s 1968 shoot; inside, pictured with her daughter Quintana on her lap (her favourite of that day), or staring straight at the camera. Wasser remembers her as “a very easy person to talk to. No Hollywood affectations” – but the photographs themselves had such star quality that the fashion house Céline not only recreated one in its 2015 ad campaign, but also featured the then 80-year-old writer herself, in black sweater and enormous sunglasses.

And the stories: the parties at the same rented house, on Franklin Avenue, to which Janis Joplin might turn up, asking for a glass of brandy and Benedictine (musicians, Didion noted, never wanted ordinary drinks); the Malibu beach house she later lived in, where the carpenter was Harrison Ford; the first assignment the neophyte writer did for Vogue, a piece on self-respect that only came to her because the original journalist failed to deliver and they’d already put the strapline on the cover.

The issue with the anecdotes is that they are both diverting and revealing. The Center Will Not Hold, the 2017 documentary made by Griffin Dunne, the nephew of Didion’s late husband, John Gregory Dunne, is a particularly rich fund. We discover from her literary agent that Didion puts her manuscripts in the freezer if she needs to let them settle, and from her friend Susanna Moore that, back in the day, Didion would silently descend in the morning, crack open a Coca-Cola and a tin of salted almonds and get to work. Griffin recalls meeting her for the first time as a child in bathing trunks and being mortified that a testicle had emerged from his costume; all the adults roared with laughter except Didion, for which he has always loved her. He also asks her about the experience, famously recounted in Didion’s piece about 1960s Haight-Ashbury, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, of coming across a five-year-old girl who had been given LSD. Didion leans towards the camera, as if suddenly animated out of her frailty and replies, with due drama: “Let me tell you – it was GOLD.”

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” became the title piece of Didion’s first essay collection – her debut novel, Run, River, had appeared a few years earlier – when she was 33; a couple of years later, she had added another novel, Play It as It Lays, which she adapted with her husband into a film. The couple had already written the screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park, and would go on to do the same for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s 1976 iteration of A Star Is Born. She was, in other words, busy, and increasingly successful. But in terms of her writing, it is not clear at all that she was satisfied.

Didion with John Gregory Dunne and their daughter, Quintana, in Malibu, California, 1972.
Didion with John Gregory Dunne and their daughter, Quintana, in Malibu, California, 1972. Photograph: Henry Clarke/Conde Nast/Getty Images

The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem – often cast into the New Journalism pot alongside Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, though they feel far less certain and declarative – played with the tension between detachment and immersion; Didion was observing this world, that much was evident, but how far was she a part of it? She threw parties, but she was not a hippie; her relationship with her conventional Sacramento upbringing was not one of rebellion but a more complicated, long-term acceptance, and she found that, after a while, endless tales of acid and the concept of universal love “all sounded like marmalade skies to me”. David Hare, who worked with her to bring her memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, to the stage, describes her as having “a horror of disorder”.

Eleven years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title essay of The White Album (1979) added some context to Didion’s earlier writing. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience,” she wrote. “Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling. I suppose this period began around 1966 and continued until 1971.”

The word “phantasmagoria” is striking; Didion also described the experience of living in Hollywood as following a kind of dream logic, suggesting that she recognised the tendency of external reality to blend with mental imagery. “[A]ll I knew was what I saw,” she continues in the essay, “flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”

“The White Album” is an extraordinary essay; Didion’s reflections on writing yield to a description of her mental health and its treatment, and recollections of meeting Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, student protests in San Francisco and the murderers of the Manson Family. “A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in,” Didion writes, and she seemed, in the years that had elapsed, to have examined the question of whether simply recording them was a sustainable way of writing.

Subsequent work shows a shift, a greater emphasis on reportage – as in her analysis of the trial of the Central Park Five and the dispatches from El Salvador on which she worked in concert with New York Review of Books editor Bob Silvers, whom she described as her “baffle”, the layer that shut out extraneous noise as she was attempting to hone her thoughts and perceptions. In “Why I Write”, a 1976 essay, its title borrowed from Orwell, which appears in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion has also begun to wrestle with the idea of the writer’s power, and with her belief that asking for a reader’s attention is “an aggressive, even a hostile act … there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space”.

The memoirs that followed the deaths of her husband and her daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011), would at first appear to counter that view; they are testaments to the utter disorientation that grief brings, its power to derange thought and emotion. But the phenomenal popularity of the first book – in which Didion recounts feeling that she should keep her husband’s shoes safe not out of sentiment but in case he needs them when he returns from the dead – derived, of course, from the writer’s laser-like success in capturing the universal madness of mourning, and of, indeed, mounting “an invasion” of that space.

The development of her writerly tactics gives the lie to the pictures that would fix Didion in Stingray mode, or partying with the Doors – or even as grieving wife and mother. She is, to some extent, still in “secret bully” mode, playing her cards close to her chest. Much amusement ensued recently over her taciturnity in a Q&A with Time (Sample: “Do you fear death?” “No. Well, yes, of course”), but my own email exchanges with her in the past couple of weeks led me to empathise rather than laugh at the interviewer. Might she consider writing about Trump, I asked? “My sense is, no.” Was it tough to examine her mental health in “The White Album”? “Not very.” What impact does she think social media and the internet more generally have had on our conceptions of truth? “I don’t know.” She didn’t even want to talk about the TV show Tenko (she is, or was, a fan). But I guess, after all those words, she’s earned her right to a little quiet time.

Didion at home in 2011.
Didion, at home in 2011. Photograph: Dorothy Hong/Dorothy Hong (commissioned)

Why I Write

by Joan Didion

Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: 

In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject”, this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested”, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the Bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the Bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas – I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention –but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean
 Photograph: AP

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:

It tells you.
You don’t tell it.
Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told me no “story”, suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It as It Lays begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:

Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space”.

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, A Book of Common Prayer. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that Bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figures. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name Jack Valenti a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in A Book of Common Prayer, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was of the Panama airport at 6:00 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished A Book of Common Prayer. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6:00 a.m. I can feel the skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about forty who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is not simply “ordering” tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail? She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say “BIENVENIDOS” and sometimes the sign on the tower would say “BIENVENUE”, some places were wet and hot and others were dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227s and the water would need boiling.

I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

I knew about airports.

These lines appear about halfway through A Book of Common Prayer, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called Victor in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name Victor, occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.”

“I knew about airports.”

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house. This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called Victor. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

 Why I Write’ appears in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a new collection of essays published by 4th Estate (£12.99).


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