I hate following trends. Often an author will become trendy suddenly. Occasionally it happens with a debut novel, or with a film/television adaptation of that author’s work. Sometimes it’s because the author did/said something particularly notable. But Joan Didion is different. She’s been a literary presence in the US since the 1960s. She’s got novels, essays, memoirs, and screenplays to her credit. But in recent years it seems like everyone and their illiterate cousin is naming her as a favorite. This happened to coincide with my discovery of her work, so I have to confess that I am a Didion Fangirl.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. 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.” -The White Album
I discovered Joan Didion about a year and a half ago. I’d heard the name before, and was vaguely aware of her, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. But when someone close to me passed away, someone recommended I read The Year of Magical Thinking. I was skeptical. A lot of memoirs about grief, and books about death tend to end in platitudes and cliches. But when I read the book I felt like Didion was articulating a lot of what I felt. She wasn’t sugar coating anything. I didn’t feel like she was trying to “sell” her family’s deaths, or milk her grief for artistic material. It seemed like she had to write about the death of John, her husband of nearly 40 years, in order to understand it. Though The Year of Magical Thinking covers mostly her reaction toward her husband John’s death, her daughter, Quintana, was in a coma when he died. Quintana eventually died a little less than two years after her father. Didion writes about that in her follow up Blue Nights. Though that book also deals a lot with aging, I again felt as though certain passages seemed to define my feelings perfectly.
I began to seek out Didion’s other work. I read the essay collections Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and The White Album, both of which feature Didion’s explorations of America in the 1960’s. I also read South and West: From A Notebook, which is essentially Didion’s notes on a trip through the American south in the 1970’s as well as her feelings about her home state of California. It amazed me how she was able to recognize and articulate vast cultural divides in America back then, when many people only became aware of it fairly recently. I haven’t read many of her novels yet, but I have read Play It As It Lays, which is, perhaps her most famous. It was written in 1970 and adapted as a film about two years later. It alternates between the internal monologue of the main character, short first person reminiscences from other characters, and a third person narrator. The main character, Maria Wyeth, is a B list Hollywood actress, recovering from a nervous breakdown. We learn about Maria’s life, how she got to be the person she is, and what Hollywood looked like in the 1960’s (it was as bleak and grim as it was glamorous).
And Joan Didion knows about glamour. She moved to NYC at the age of 20 to take a job with Vogue. She married John Gregory Dunne, a writer for Time magazine, and they moved to California. They picked up work from book publishers and magazines and traveled together on assignments. John’s brother was Hollywood producer, writer, and investigative journalist Dominick Dunne. His children include actress Dominique Dunne, and actor/director/producer Griffin Dunne.
It was her nephew, Griffin, who produced and directed The Center Will Not Hold, a Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. It’s sometimes jarring to be reminded that Didion’s life is very glamours, given that she seems to have very little pretense. Her prose is not flowery at all. It’s clear, observant, and nuanced. But the people who talk about her life in this documentary include friends like Harrison Ford, Tom Brokaw, and David Hare. One of her dear friends, Vanessa Redgrave, starred in Didion’s stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, Redgrave’s daughter, actress Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident. In one heartbreaking scene Didion and Redgrave look through a photo album of Redgrave’s daughter Natasha Richardson’s wedding to Liam Neeson (Joan Didion was a guest). Redgrave comments that she understands The Year of Magical Thinking differently now, having lost her own child. There’s an unspoken mutual understanding in this scene. These are two women who have lost an adult child. There is no need to articulate their shared grief.
I suppose that’s one of the things I find interesting about Joan Didion. She didn’t grow up among the rich and famous. Her father was in the army, and her family traveled a lot due to his work. But she started rubbing elbows with them early in her twenties. This never seemed to faze her. She doesn’t seem to worship celebrity and glamour, not does she hold it in contempt. It’s simply part of her experience of the world. She connects to other creative people on the basis of shared emotional experience. She connects to the general public in a similar way. People have so many different perceptions of her, and no single one can sum it all up. The internet erupted in 2015 because the literary giant had commercialized herself by appearing in a Celine ad campaign. But I like that she doesn’t hold herself above appearing in the campaign, but she doesn’t seem to think it very impressive either. When asked why it caused so much commotion, she simply said “I don’t have a clue”.