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Refusing to Look Away: On Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion

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In Latin America, the name Leila Guerriero is spoken among journalists, editors, and basically anyone who enjoys the written word with the respect and reverence accorded to a savant. Or at least that is how I feel.  She is still not very known in the English-speaking world, but her book A Simple Story: The Last Malambo, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, was published this year by New Directions.

Leila Guerriero is an Argentine journalist. Shortly after graduating from tourism in 1992, she got her break into journalism by sending an unsolicited short story to Página/30, the magazine of the newspaper Página/12. Jorge Lanata, director of the magazine at the time, called her four days after she had sent the story and offered her a job as an editor. From that point on she paved her own way into journalism and editing. Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and countless and respected magazines from all-across Latin America like Gatopardo and El Malpensante.

Guerriero’s craft is deeply entwined with how she sees and approaches the world. Her books are usually not very long, favoring meaningful sparseness over ornamentation. Full, winding sentences circle around her subjects like a cat inspecting a new visitor. The words she uses are oftentimes technical and specific, but selected with such respect for the story that they don’t lack warmth. Her writing is so very precise that when one runs her paragraphs through Google Translate (don´t ever do this for any writer) the result is not entirely offending to the soul.

Before Guerriero decided—inspired only by a short note in a newspaper—to write a book on the Argentine folk dance malambo and its most important contest, this part of Argentine culture had been covered in typically folksy or dispassionate terms. As Guerriero spent more and more time in the village of Laborde, blending in with the local audience and participants of this long-standing tradition, she managed to do much more than construct merely a colorful profile of a dancer and a dance contest. The real question coursing through her descriptions of boots and rehearsals and hats and anxious phone calls is: in a way of life that can spare so little, how do people pour so much of themselves into a single and finite contest? The question is not only directed towards Rodolfo González Alcántara, the dancer she shadows, but to the region as a whole.

When describing one of the dancers after his turn on the floor, Guerriero notes, “That was the first main malambo I saw in the competition at Laborde, and it was like being attacked. I ran backstage and saw the man—Ariel Pérez, the hopeful of the province of Buenos Aires—rush into his dressing room with the urgency of someone repressing love or hate or the desire to kill.” A Simple Story becomes then an ekphrastic of a dance tournament and of the people who make up this community.

In an essay about writing from the book Frutos Extraños, Guerriero tries to answer the question of how to write a good profile: “The answer is: I don’t know, but, in any case, what works for me is to be curious, overflow with patience, and cultivate discretion: ask as if you don’t know, wait as if you have time, and be there as if you weren’t.”󠀪 Her point of view is the style itself.

Guerriero’s closest American analog is Joan Didion. Although I had heard of her, I read Joan Didion for the first time two years ago, having recently moved to the U.S. Reading through Slouching Towards Bethlehem felt both new and familiar. The people in it I had never met, but the way she wrote, the curiosity driving each of the stories, and the accuracy of her observations made me feel exactly as reading Guerriero’s books felt. Like meeting someone who reminds you of your best friend. Nathaniel Rich writes in the foreword to Didion’s most recent offering, South and West, that Didion’s insistence on showing us the South’s “dense obsessiveness” and “the vindictiveness that comes with it” was proof of a certain clairvoyance on her part “that the past was also the future.” Her future, our present.

South and West is in a very distilled way a travelogue. In other hands, a scene of Mississippi state pride would read as caricature; Didion achieves a certain detached anthropological respect for her subjects that is echoed in Guerriero’s work.

Didion and Guerriero are able to produce such detailed and truthful accounts of their subjects because they are totally willing to be uncomfortable; they never shy from awkward moments that reveal the subtle, strange ways in which people behave—and that usually carry more meaning than words themselves. From the first time Didion takes note of a Confederate-flag beach towel we realize this is no dashed-off observation. As she moves further into her travels, the towels keep reappearing in her notebook—never quite acquiring a full body, but never out of her sight. We read writers like Guerriero and Didion so we don’t forget that looking at people is the most uncomfortable and powerful thing a writer can do.

In one of the most intimate passages of A Simple Story, Guerriero tells the readers:

And as I stare at the back of this man whom I know nothing about, who reads the words of his God before he goes out to gamble it all, an uncomfortable certainty flares up inside me: this is the most frighteningly intimate situation that I’ve ever shared with another human being. Something in him screams, ‘Don’t look at me!’ But I’m there to look. And I look.

Ultimately this is what I search for in nonfiction, and I always find it in these women’s work: an unflinching eye and a deceptively simple way with words that creates a remarkable intimacy with the reader. Now, when recommending Guerriero’s book to my English-speaking friends I use Didion as comparative and hook, and the same thing in reverse when urging my Spanish-speaking friends to seek out Didion’s books. So they too can see what I’ve seen.

Prescient and Precious: On Joan Didion

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I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.

Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written.  The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970.  The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.

The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.
This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy.  But was it so outlandish?  In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South.  Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not.  So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents.  Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater.  After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”

Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast.  One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.”  Here’s why:
There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff.  The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.
I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger.  I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong.  Later, Didion reports:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken.  Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
My anger resurfaced.  What horseshit, I thought.  You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.

After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point.  The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role.  Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing.  She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread.  As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.”  I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion.  She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences.  She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.

In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem.  Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.”  The operative words here are cool and empyreal.  “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences.  But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi.  There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.

At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:
The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold.  All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.  Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?
And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.”  In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style.  The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”  Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.

This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.”  This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness.  Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust?  Or Henry James?  Or Virginia Woolf?  Or Flannery O’Connor?  Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity.  “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins.  Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.”  But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”

The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:
“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”
“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”
“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line.  One is conscious of trains in the South.  It is a true earlier time.”  And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”
“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river.  I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.  A sense of water moccasins.”
“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”
“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools.  Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality.  In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.”  In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar.  ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’”  In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.”  In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing.  I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”

In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony.  The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South.  Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics.  The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow.  Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance.  I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.”  Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask.  This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”

The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).”  That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.  With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”  The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars.  Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West.  But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.

At Home in Potatoland: On Joan Didion, Nostalgia, and Walt Disney

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1.
My default location on weather.com is Walt Disney World.

This makes no sense. For one thing, I live in Cambridge, Mass. For another, there are places I visit far more often than I visit Orlando: my hometown in Monterey, Calif., for example. I’ve tried to change my settings on the website to better reflect this. But for some reason, the four trips I’ve taken to Disney World have thrown a wrench into the algorithm, and as a result I’m always cognizant of whether or not it’s warm enough for a spin on the Kali River Rapids. (Today, it’s 89 and cloudy in the Animal Kingdom, so the answer is yes.)

As a result of this little computer glitch, I think about Disney every day. I think about Monterey every day, too. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, although when I go back, I feel like a tourist. Growing up, there was no greater insult. I recall the uncharacteristic vitriol with which my dad (who is usually a jolly and even-tempered fellow) would mutter the epithet at the crowds on Cannery Row or at the drivers of the rental RVs that went way too slow down Highway One.

2.
Intense feelings demand action. We confront them or dull them or change them, or we question ourselves for having felt so strongly in the first place. Reading Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, I get a sense of the latter. The book is, among other things, a late-in-life exploration of her youth in California. I’m not talking Slouching Toward Bethlehem youth or Play It as It Lays youth: I’m talking early years. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, but her family’s tenure in the West stretches back to 1846, when her mother’s ancestors traveled, for a time, alongside the infamous George Donner-James F. Reed party. The depths of Didion’s California roots are troublesome for her. There is a “dissonance,” she says “which has to do with the slippage between the way Californians perceive themselves and the way they were, between what they believed to be their unlimited possibilities and the limitations of their own character and history.” She seems both skeptical of California’s allure and inescapably caught up in it: a contradiction that encapsulates the very nature of nostalgia and its discontents.

Nostalgia is something she shares with Walt Disney, another legendary Californian. Disney, however, did not share Didion’s ambivalence, and his nostalgia wasn’t a product of California. Rather, it was inspired by Marceline, Mo: his home in childhood. It was, to his mind, the perfect example of small-town America. The countryside was lush and welcoming. The downtown was charming and safe but also, because it served as a railroad division point, alive with commerce and community and all sorts of entertainment. The years Disney spent there were short but formative: “more things happened to me in Marceline than have happened since,” he once commented, “or are likely to in the future.” When Walt and his team were planning the layout of Disneyland, Walt would hold forth for hours on the charms of his former home: an exercise that eventually resulted in the Main Street sections of the parks that bear his name. Walking down these faux boulevards is a very strange experience. You get the sense that Walt never questioned the purity of his nostalgia. In fact, his hallucination of yesteryear is so dense and detailed and complete that even the most cynical visitor—myself included—can’t help but feel a weird twinge of homesickness. This twinge isn’t accidental or unique. It is, in the words of one Disney scholar, “a fantasized but nearly pitch-perfect representation of [our] deepest commitments and beliefs.” It is the bedrock of the Disney brand, and it is exploited at every turn. Welcome home! is how all visitors, even first time ones, are greeted by Disney hotel staff.

I’m drawn in by the hallucination but, like any good curmudgeon, I’m also irked by it. I’m always on the lookout for a chink in the armor, a glitch in the matrix. In 2013, the company began making revamped versions of its classic Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. While the new storylines retain much of the harmless whimsy of the originals, there are times when the themes dig deeper, especially in Potatoland. In this short, Goofy longs to visit Potatoland: a theme park devoted to potatoes. The problem is, Potatoland doesn’t actually exist; it’s just a billboard slogan for Idaho that Goofy, as a child, took literally. Mickey and Donald are so touched by Goofy’s enduring enthusiasm and naiveté that they take it upon themselves to make his boyhood dream come true. They construct a Disney World entirely out of potatoes and guide an enraptured Goofy to each of the potato-centric attractions. As they’re walking down Potatoland’s Main Street, Goofy exclaims, “It feels so…magical!” The accompanying visuals, however, are anything but. We see Goofy peering into a storefront window, imagining the treasures within. The treasures, however, are nothing more than a dirt floor, some scrap lumber, and a potato on a stool: a fact that Goofy, from his perspective, cannot discern but that we, as the audience, can. Disney, in other words, is calling itself out on its own bullshit. But, in so doing, it also reinforces the bullshit’s primal power. You know it and we know it, the cartoon seems to say, and yet…here we are.

3.
What, then, does this imply about the value of the hallucination, especially in relation to the behind-the-scenes mechanisms required to keep it alive?

I’ve never been behind-the-scenes at a Disney park. I have, however, worked at The Monterey Bay Aquarium: a tourist destination that, although it welcomes far fewer visitors than the Disneyland or Disney World, is extremely popular in its own right. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a distinctly beautiful aquarium experience. The tanks are flawlessly curated and maintained, the viewing corridors are spotless and thoughtfully lit and, where appropriate, full of haunting ambient music. When people describe their visits, it is often in borderline spiritual terms. Over the course of my tenure there, I had ample opportunity to see the fallacy of this. I could have seen a seamy underbelly. I could have witnessed corners cut or animals mistreated. I could have glimpsed the potato on the stool, so to speak. But I never did. If anything, the private spaces of the Monterey Bay Aquarium are even more magical that the public ones. The exact same aesthetic sensibility that pervades the viewing galleries—clean, calm, scientifically sound, technologically advanced—also characterizes the service corridors, which is nice because it appeals to my sense of symmetry. But does it actually matter? Does it change the intended visitor experience? Does it make the enacting of the touristic ritual any more blameless? If the hallucination doesn’t evaporate when you peek through the fake storefront window, is it replicated into infinity thereby becoming an even more convincing—and potentially insidious—performance of substance?

Unlike my Dad, I’m not interested in condemning tourists. I’ve been a tourist myself on countless occasions, and there are few things more maddening than someone bemoaning a phenomenon in which she is complicit. Like everyone else, I’ve spent money at places designed to meet the needs of the transient as opposed to the permanent. The fact remains, however, that the Monterey of 2016 is nothing like the Monterey in which I was born and raised. It has, in our culture’s parlance for something commercialized and sanitized to the point of self-parody, been “Disneyfied.” I’m sad about this but, like Didion, I question the validity of the sadness. I recognize that the aquarium—an institution I love and respect—is largely responsible for the town’s transformation. I also recognize that the sturdy structure of my childhood impressions is someone else’s (John Steinbeck’s, maybe?) flimsy façade. In Didion’s words:
Discussion of how California has ‘changed’…tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.
I have similarly non-overlapping holograms, or hallucinations, of Cannery Row, the street on which the aquarium now resides. First, as the site of suspiciously well-contained warehouse fires; second, on the aquarium’s opening day; and third, as Monterey’s faux Main Street cum Times Square: a place where the crowds are bad, the commerce is frivolous, the prices are high, and where locals almost never go unless they’re entertaining someone who lives elsewhere.

4.
At the turn of the prior century, when Monterey was experiencing its first burst of attention from the leisure class, this onstage/offstage friction reached a literal flash point. The proprietors of the luxurious Hotel Del Monte were convinced its well-heeled patrons would not abide the aesthetic shortcomings of the town’s thriving fishing industry, so they did everything in their power—including arson, some say—to push the blue-collar undesirables out of both sight and mind.

And even though my love of the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes me once again hesitant to proclaim as much, there is evidence of the same sort of culling in terms of both their exhibit design and visitor demographics. Aquarium tanks are highly curated situations, and for a good reason. Few people would actually care to witness the true brutality and barrenness of life in the ocean. So the aquarists—the men and women who care for the fish and design their habitats—are tasked with presenting a highly edited and beautified version of life in the bay. In a sense, it’s a Disney World for fish: a place where the ugliness of reality is replaced by reality’s pleasantly circumscribed doppelgänger. It’s a considerable achievement, and it costs a lot to maintain, which is why the ticket prices are so high. Which, in turn, is why, when you roam the aquarium’s galleries, you often see more diversity inside the tanks than in front of them.

5.
From all accounts, Walt Disney never became disenchanted with Marceline, Mo. As Disneyland grew into a bona fide phenomenon, its founder’s ambitions became extraordinarily wide-ranging. In addition to considering Disney-branded golf courses, bowling alleys, cocktail bars, and childcare centers, Walt also had grand plans for his childhood homestead in Marceline. For a time in the late-1960s, he wanted to turn it into a model farm: a tourist-friendly version of the real thing. This particular vision was never realized, but that didn’t stop Disney from conducting other experiments in the forcible redefinition of home. To wit, Celebration, Fla: a master-planned community adjacent to Disney World that allows its residents to live the dream not just on vacation, but year-round.

Joan Didion ended up in New York. There are so many questions that, given the chance, I’d love to ask her. In spite of everything she’s come to realize about home and its limitations, does she still consider herself a Californian? Has she made her peace with the collective delusion on which the state was built and continues to operate? Does she still experience “a lightening of the spirit” when she flies west, or has that mellowed and darkened with time? Like Didion, I flew back to Monterey to bury my mother, and it’s hard to imagine a day when the sight of that coastline will be anything other than shattering.

Unlike Didion, however, I’ll try not to beat myself up about this. I won’t speak ill of nostalgia: mine or anyone else’s. I won’t condemn those who spend their hard-earned money and fast-vanishing time on hallucinations, convincing or otherwise. Most of all, I’ll try not to pass judgment on Disney’s latest trick. To find inspiration for the setting of Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, Disney animators visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They examined the viewing galleries and the service corridors. They made sketches that beautified the already beautiful, that condensed the already condensed. The final result is, of course, gorgeous: a hologram within a hologram in which viewers from every corner of the globe will feel instantly, inexplicably at home.

Image Credit: Flickr/harshlight.

Joan Didion, America’s Truth-Teller

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“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”

This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.

Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.

In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.

I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.

Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?

In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”

Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.

The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.

In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”

From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”

The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.

Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.

But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.

The Manliness of Joan Didion

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First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:

Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.

While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.

The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.

I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”

The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.

In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.

Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.

This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.

Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.

“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.

A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, 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 Indians will be hostile, 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.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.

The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “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.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”

Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.

But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’

Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”

Her skin?

I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?

Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”

I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.

Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.

(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)

Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”

The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.

But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”

If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)

In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”

Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.

I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.

And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.

Magical Thinking: Joan Didion’s Blue Nights

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“Sentimental Journeys,” Joan Didion’s famous essay on the trials of the five young black and Latino men accused in the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case, follows the template of so much of Didion’s best nonfiction: she lays out the narrative of the case as it has taken hold in the public mind, and then, taking up a sledgehammer in the shape of a reporter’s notepad, she smashes that sentimental version of events to bits. In the essay, included in her collection After Henry, Didion reminds the reader that the brutal rape of a young, white investment banker was only one 3,254 other rapes reported that year, but concludes that the point is merely “rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.”

The “high concept” in the case of the Central Park Jogger, Didion says, lay in the way the crime pitted a young, white, notionally virginal member of New York’s financial elite against five teenaged members of its dark, angry underclass, who according to prosecutors and the local press, had set upon the young jogger like a pack of wild animals. “Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path,” one headline read. Another newspaper supplied the lurid details: “One [assailant] shouted ‘hit the beat’ and they all started rapping to ‘Wild Thing.’” In a city beset by violent crime, a foundering economy, and troubling racial unrest, Didion writes, “the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster.”

In 2002, after another man confessed to the crime, the convictions of the five accused rapists were formally expunged, but in 1990, when Didion published the essay in the New York Review of Books, her willingness to cast doubt not only on a jury’s verdict but on the received opinion of virtually all of white New York was courageous. But such is the stuff upon which the cult of Joan Didion has been built. In her long career as an essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion has made a specialty of slaughtering our most sacred cows. John Wayne, Nancy Reagan, second-wave feminists, Haight-Ashbury hippies, even her own pioneer ancestors – all these have undergone the Didion treatment, which is to say that she has laboriously detailed their public myths, their most fondly held visions of themselves, and then set about pounding those myths into submission with the truth, usually in the form of their own words.

In recent years, however, following a run of calamity that claimed the lives of her husband and only daughter, Didion has turned that famously pitiless observational apparatus inward, first in The Year of Magical Thinking, and now Blue Nights, out just this week. The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles Didion’s first year of widowhood after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, became a runaway bestseller and spawned a Broadway play of the same name, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Blue Nights, though it covers similar terrain – in this case, the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo – is a much pricklier beast, and I would be surprised if it finds as many readers as her previous book.

In purely economic terms, The Year of Magical Thinking had two very important things going for it. First, coming out as it did as baby boomers began to hit retirement age, it caught the zeitgeist of an aging population just coming to terms with the losses and diminishment of old age. Second, because Dunne died from a heart attack while their daughter lay comatose in the hospital, the book put Didion in the position of the victim beset by an almost Biblical tide of woe that she had no hand in creating. In describing the kind of “magical thinking” that leads a widow to refuse to give away her dead husband’s shoes in case he should ever come back and need them, Didion, the least cuddly of authors, presented herself for perhaps the first time in her career as a woman the reader could identify with and care about.

In Blue Nights, on the other hand, Didion is not a victim, but at least putatively the villain of the piece. Quintana died of complications of a blood clot in her brain, but as Didion makes clear, she was a troubled woman who drank to excess and contemplated suicide long before she got sick, and one of the central questions of the book is whether Didion’s failings as a mother, directly or indirectly, led to her daughter’s death. In other words, Didion is once again following her time-tested template of setting out a fondly held personal mythos and then smashing it, except that this time the mythos is her own vision of herself as a good mother.

In concept, this sounds like a formula for a tough-minded examination of our society’s sentimental attachment to the myth of the perfect mother, and if any writer in contemporary American letters is equipped for such a project it would be Didion. Not only is she one of the best reporters we have, not only does she have a justly earned reputation for ruthless honesty, but she is a mother by choice. After some years of trying to have a biological child, Didion and Dunne adopted Quintana hours after she was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. Didion’s descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the adoption, her desire to have a child and her fears of not being up to the task, are among the most moving passages of the book. The infant Quintana spent her first two nights in the hospital, she writes,
and at some point during each of those nights I woke in the house at Portuguese Bend to the same chill, hearing the surf break on the rocks below, dreaming that I had forgotten her, left her asleep in a drawer, gone into town for dinner or a movie and made no provision for the infant that could even then be waking alone and hungry in the drawer in Portuguese Bend.
This passage sets the tone for much of the rest of the book, as Didion wrestles, page after painful page, with her own ambivalence toward motherhood. She castigates herself for being emotionally cold, for expecting her daughter to be in effect a third adult in the house, for being too busy writing books and screenplays to pay attention to the early signs of her daughter’s distress. Over and over, as if picking at a bleeding scab, Didion rehashes nightmares Quintana suffered as a young girl, weirdly solemn poems she wrote for school, a phone call she made at age five to a nearby mental asylum “to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy.”

“How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” Didion asks herself.

The sheer repetitiveness of these questions, the way the book keeps circling back to a few snapshot memories of young, troubled Quintana, speaks with its own eloquence of the pain Didion is suffering in the wake of the loss of her family. It is hard to blame her. I am a parent, and I can only imagine how painful it must be to bury one’s own child. But as a reader I found myself wondering whether Didion’s obsessive rehearsing of the evidence “against” her wasn’t simply more of what she called in her previous book “magical thinking”? To take a Didionesque interrogative approach, couldn’t it be said that wondering whether you played some role in your daughter’s death is tantamount to wondering if your daughter’s death was somehow preventable – or, to put the point more finely, that you could have saved her life by being somehow a different person? If so, aren’t you really asking not “Was I responsible for letting my daughter die?” but instead, “Couldn’t I, by being a better person, somehow bring her back?” Or, to put it still another way, is it not true that to ask “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” is merely another way of saying, “If I had only seen what pain she was in, she would be alive today,” and “Thus, because I do now see it, in a way, she is alive”?

I don’t know. To state the obvious, I am no Joan Didion. I am, however, fairly certain of two things. First, Blue Nights, despite some lovely writing, is finally a closed loop, a personal missive from a grief-stricken mother to her dead daughter that fails to make enough space for the reader to work as literature. Second, at least given the evidence provided in Blue Nights, Didion is not responsible for her daughter’s death. Didion may have been cold, she may have been busy, she may have even ignored some obvious warning signs, but if this book is any indication of the depth of her love for Quintana, and I strongly suspect it is, then Didion loved her daughter with every fiber of her being – and, really, what more can a parent do?

 

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

Getting Out: Escaping with Joan Didion

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1.
Last winter, I wore the same snow boots every time I left my house for almost seven months.  Minnesota, in the grip of a historically severe winter, was shellacked in several feet of snow from November to April—the kind of snow that doesn’t melt, but rather petrifies, growing yellow with the urine of dogs and drunks and sprouting a crust of cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. The kind of snow that requires not just snow boots, but a certain kind of Lutheran forbearance, to endure. I had finished graduate school the previous spring and was staying in the Midwest and trying to write, but mostly failing. Instead of writing, I was watching television. Sometimes I took breaks from the television to Google Reporting neighbors for not shoveling sidewalks—Minneapolis. For weeks on end I passed the same puddle of frozen vomit on the sidewalk, walking to the co-op in my neighborhood to buy hothouse vegetables and peaches of a baseball’s firmness that would never soften, flown in from some place where they’ve never heard of microwavable socks and only use rock salt for the making of ice cream.

I was, you might say, in a bad way.

In April, I went out to San Francisco for five days, my first real vacation in several years. I flew to the west coast to visit a few friends, with the idea in the back of my head that if I liked it, I’d think about making a move. Let me pause here to say that I am not sure what it is in my past that has convinced me I’m a levelheaded and methodical person, not prone to following impulse. It’s one of the bigger of my self-delusions. I should have guessed what would happen when I got to California—I didn’t think about money or employment or the kind of support system I might have if I moved to a state after spending less than a week there. I didn’t make a budget or research apartment rentals or neighborhoods. I just walked out of the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport and thought, without hesitation, Yes. By the time my friend arrived in a ‘94 Toyota Corolla with a sheet of Plexiglass welded over the top (a reveler had stomped through her sunroof after the Giants won the World Series), I was deep in the kind of mental acrobatics necessary to consider lifting up my life and resettling it, 2,000 miles away.

2.
If there’s ever a time in your life to read early Joan Didion, it’s when you’re young and thoroughly disenchanted with a place. As it happens, I brought Slouching Towards Bethlehem with me on my trip to California, and I read “Goodbye to All That” on the flight. The essay—which is a good deal about New York, but a greater deal about how it feels to become so thoroughly sick of the circumstances of your life that you lose all ability to imagine something better, something easier, any change at all—did not make any lasting impression on me as I crossed the continent. I had a deep appreciation of certain sentences, but that was all. I didn’t yet recognize myself in Didion’s rueful description of her own younger self; I was too caught up in the excitement of a trip and long-missed friends and warm(ish) weather. It was only later, when I had handed my heart over to fog and tiers of cheerfully mismatched houses and the dumplings at a certain restaurant not far from the ocean, and was back in my cold and spare Midwestern apartment, that Didion’s prose began to seem like a beacon.

It’s funny how, if you’re a reader of any degree, you sometimes come across the exact right text at the exact right time. It has happened for me once or twice before—Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation at a moment when I could not understand why no place seemed to feel like home any longer; Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story in the middle of a breakup that wouldn’t take. Of all the books I could have picked up for my San Francisco trip (the unread story collection I was meant to review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the perpetually half-read Madame Bovary), I chose Bethlehem on a kind of premonition, seeing it on the shelf in a neighbor’s apartment. Wasn’t Didion Californian? was all the thought I gave it. As easily as that, I had a thing I hadn’t known I needed. There Didion was in my ear, telling the story of how New York had ended for her, and showing me, with the gentle brutality of a certain kind of mother, how Minneapolis had ended for me as well.

For the next few months, Didion’s images lingered: gold silk curtains, the scent of crab boil, a cockroach on the tiled floor of a bar during the moon landing. I thought of those scenes as I packed my books and linens into boxes. I thought of how I would think about the Midwest, once I had gotten out of it.

3.
I loved Minneapolis, at first, in the way Didion describes loving New York:
I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.
I knew that mirage. I encountered it first when I arrived in the Minnesota, on a crisp and clear late summer day (the kind I know, now, that there are only three or four of per year), and saw my new neighborhood, with its rows of cottages and little bungalows all shivering when the train passed through. I loved my house, my walk to campus, the old grain elevator overlooking the park on the corner and the generally bygone feel of the whole region. In winter I loved watching children ice skate and the sound of snow plows late at night passing my bedroom window. Later, when I moved to a seedier part of town, I loved that too: the dive bars and the buckled sidewalks and the charm of my 1930s apartment with its old Murphy bed and clawfoot tub.

Didion writes that she is not sure of the moment New York began to sour for her. I can say almost certainly that only my first year in the Midwest was unqualifiedly good, untouched by the long, slow decline that characterized the later seasons. There were bright moments always: I spent weekends in idyllic cabins and made pickles and played bocce near city lakes. I, too, had historic experiences in bars—I watched the 2008 election results come in in a bar on Lyndale Avenue, watched young people flood out into the streets and felt for a moment that the world was significant and somehow more real than it had been only minutes before. I didn’t cry in laundromats and I avoided parties almost as a rule, but for a long time, like Didion, I “cherished the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing.” I suppose the solitude ought to have been a sign.

And slowly, it became one. People I cared about began to move away from the Midwest, moved on to New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—places I visited and found intoxicating in their pace and vibrancy. People in those cities didn’t watch as much television or read as many books; they were really living life!  Meanwhile the intolerable Minnesota winters grew even more intolerable, and the summers somehow worse, brutally hot and plagued with unspeakable numbers of insects (and the particularly Midwestern pressure to always be enjoying the summer). I wrote to friends in other cities and began to find Minneapolis’s charm slipping, its provincial face showing. I could no longer write, Come out, and we’ll go to the state fair. I didn’t want to go to the fair. A mirage vanishes, is the thing; the way you imagine a place and the story you tell yourself about your life there slowly give way to the drudgery of everyday perception.

In July, my final month in Minnesota, it was so humid that mushrooms began growing in a corner of my bathroom, and none of the doors of my apartment would open or shut properly, they were so bloated with the moisture in the air. I came home one oppressive afternoon and found two men drunk on Listerine passed out on the front lawn. I saw someone on the bus using needle-nosed pliers to remove his nostril hair. None of it was out of the ordinary, but my view of it was. Minneapolis hadn’t changed, but the ugliness had become all I saw of the city.

4.
It’s an act of great ego to write an echo of someone else’s work—or maybe it’s the humblest act of all.  Didion herself was writing an echo, of Robert Graves’s autobiography on the topic of his postwar “bitter leave-taking of England,” where he had “ceased to care what anyone thought about [him].” Didion’s material feels both particular and universal because of this fact of tribute—no one could have written the piece but her, except that someone already did. She leaves this fact to the reader to know or uncover. Does that omission mean a reader should compare (or can’t avoid comparing) the parallel pieces? To me, the act of unacknowledged echoing suggests both equivalence and abasement: I am the equal; I will never be the equal. I’ve taken the coward’s way out by writing about Didion directly, here. If I were braver—and oh, if I were braver!—I would have let the reference go unmentioned.

I’ll end true to form.  See how Didion begins her final paragraph: “it was three years ago [my husband] told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.”  There’s an abruptness here—there’s the barest suggestion of that false hope, that you can escape what hounds you by running away fast enough, or cleverly enough, or suddenly enough. Never mind what comes next; never mind what a little research will actually tell us about Didion’s later years. Never mind all that. Instead, look at the now. There is a complex power to this type of ending, this fleeting perpetuity. Now: I am writing this in a café not far from Dolores Park, in San Francisco. Now: I’ve lived in California for two months. The wonder of everything isn’t lost on me yet; a palm tree, for example, is a very good thing. As a friend explained, “It means you’re somewhere new.” I did do one brave thing. I’m somewhere new.

Image: Rob!/Flickr

Joan Didion on Woody Allen

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The New York Review of Books posts a vintage essay by Joan Didion on the films of Woody Allen: “This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, ‘make an effort’ for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s ‘relationships’—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school.”