No country but America could have produced Joan Didion. And no other country would have tolerated her. Think about it. Born in 1934, and gone this month, eighty-seven years later, Didion came of age during Stalin’s reign, at a time when South Africa was instituting apartheid, when India and Pakistan were almost drowning in the aftermath of Partition. Would Mao’s China have welcomed her? Or England—the country of saying the opposite of what you think so as not to cause offense? Not likely. Plus, she didn’t like England. “Everything that’s wrong here started there,” she told me once, when she was thinking of cancelling a trip to London. “Also, so obsequious,” she added. “ ‘Yes, Miss Didion. No, Miss Didion.’ ” Beat. “And they don’t mean it.”

Global in mind but a small-town girl at heart, Didion stayed close to home because she was, first and foremost, a writer, and she was interested in what constituted an American voice. Including her own. She loved Norman Mailer’s, especially the laconic, Western tone he adopted in his 1979 book “The Executioner’s Song,” which she, in a Times review of the book, called a voice “heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.” I think she was drawn to V. S. Naipaul’s pessimism-as-style, too, less because of what it sprang from—the displaced Trinidadian with race and class envy—than because Naipaul’s unwillingness to hope, viewed from a certain angle, mirrored Didion’s own fascination with failure. Indeed, she could never quite reconcile herself to the fact that her country rarely grappled with, or acted on, its own principles.

Didion believed in citizenship. Raised in a white Republican family in Sacramento, she grew up with the rights and privileges of her class. But, as she moved away from that world and into the larger realm of her mind and her experience, she began to see the cracks, and to wonder what those cracks meant. The first crack had to do with her own “I”—what it meant to have her skeptical, philosophical mind and not to have been born a man. You know those early essays. The ones about marriage and motherhood and migraines and life in Malibu, essays that are fetishized time and time again, mostly because they’re read wrong—as a kind of articulation of, and nostalgia for, what is now called white-woman fragility. To be fair, Didion’s early tone was an early tone; her later romance with despair couldn’t have happened had she not once lived with hope. So what if it was buried under California gothic: there was always, on the horizon of that flat Western landscape, a new wagon train approaching. Things would be different when . . . Dad would be less depressed after . . .

The schism between that kind of hope and knowing a thing for what it is affects all writers as they mature. The trick is to match the words to what you see and what you know. Didion had to learn to say no to her upbringing. That requires a lot of power, physical and otherwise, and, make no mistake about it, to be female was to be a target. In her 1979 review of Elizabeth Hardwick’s book “Sleepless Nights,” Didion wrote, “Perhaps no one has written more acutely and poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority, about the poetic and practical implications of walking around the world deficient in hemoglobin, deficient in respiratory capacity, deficient in muscular strength. . . . ‘Any woman who has ever had her wrist twisted by a man recognizes a fact of nature as humbling as a cyclone to a frail tree branch,’ [Hardwick] observed in an essay on Simone de Beauvoir some years ago, an assertion of ‘women’s difference’ at once so explicit and obscurely shameful that it sticks like a burr in one’s capacity for wishful thinking.”

What constituted Didion’s wishful thinking? Girls who came to adulthood during the Eisenhower Presidency were socialized to accommodate, to make a family before making themselves. They were supposed to shut up and like it, to be central to a man’s life and to his success. But, as Didion wrote in early essays, such as 1961’s “On Self-Respect,” maybe one could choose not to shut up but to remake the idea of womanhood in one’s own image. She would be Joan Didion thanks to self-discipline, not self-repression:

It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk . . . that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds. That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. . . . To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.

“I didn’t want to be Miss Lonelyhearts,” Didion said to me one afternoon in 2005. We were in her apartment on the Upper East Side, and, in the course of interviewing her, I’d asked why she had shifted away from the more personal style of her first two collections, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” Those books were touchstones for me on how to avoid snark and skepticism—the easy tools of journalism—and try something harder: analysis informed by context, even if what you were analyzing was yourself. She said that Bob Silvers, her editor at The New York Review of Books, had given her the courage to move forward “intellectually,” she who had written so intelligently about why she wasn’t an intellectual (her incapacity to think abstractly, her love of the specific). That courage allowed not so much for a new way of thinking as for an expansion of what she was already thinking about, which included America’s two great subjects: race and gender.

It hasn’t been much remarked upon, but Didion wrote trenchantly about race throughout her career. When her early books were reviewed, her primarily white critics remarked on what she had to say about any number of things—Nancy Reagan, Alcatraz, John Wayne, headaches, Manhattan—but rarely addressed her position on the subject of race. Always it was there for me, though. Along with her thoughts on self-respect and morality, her early examinations of race in America were gripping in a different way than her personal narratives because they showed her becoming an independent voice. To this day, I cannot read this section from the title essay of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” without feeling a shooting pain go up my spine. You know the scene. It’s 1967, and she’s writing a piece about things falling apart in Northern California, where she went to school. (She graduated with a degree in English from Berkeley, in 1956.) She’s in Golden Gate Park with a few of her subjects, runaways and speed freaks, mostly. She writes:

Big Brother is playing in the Panhandle, and almost everybody is high, and it is a pretty nice Sunday afternoon between three and six o’clock . . . and who turns up but Peter Berg. He is with his wife and six or seven other people . . . and the first peculiar thing is, they’re in blackface. . . .

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dimestore plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs: HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS? and things like that. . . .

Source link

Review Overview

Summary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *