Review: Dan Dixonon Joan Didion

Pinpoint Nonchalance

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Let me tell you what I mean.

The title introduces two characters, writer and reader, the writer in comfortable control. It encapsulates Joan Didion’s authorial attitude with a march of monosyllables, every second word a pronoun: she is a straight shooter, made weary by circumlocution. Taken literally, the phrase requests permission, but read properly as an idiom, permission is assumed. Let me be clear, let me be frank, let me enlighten you. It’s formulated as a softened threat, a moderated aggression, an effort to make whatever follows palatable, perhaps because the writer believes you require gentle easing into the truth, a methodical preparation. Didion has pulled you aside and, after describing a feeling or sensation or scene, she is ready to share why her subject matters, to unveil the stakes to you specifically. It is an intimate gesture, yet also fatigued. Perhaps she finds the requirement to explain tiresome, or is frustrated that you even need telling.

The title suits the book, because it invokes Didion’s authoritative role as a literary icon (a role about which she is no doubt dubious) and her rare talent to, in fact, say what she means. Both her sharp authority and cool intuition are abundantly displayed in this gathering of excellent previously uncollected odds and ends – the essays are chronologically arranged, the earliest from 1968, the most recent from 2000 – that reaffirms her virtuosic cynicism and serves as a worthwhile reminder that her reputation is dependent not on the image or brand that sometimes seems to stand in for her body of work, but on her writing. This brief survey of Didion’s career advances no particular thesis, but casually surpasses, in insight and intellect, many of the contemporary essayists who remain under her influence.

If writers are sufficiently famous and influential, their reputations can break loose from their prose. Writers of nonfiction are especially vulnerable to this, because they appear to have revealed themselves to us, an act we like to interpret as permission to infer their entire personhood. The pleasure of reading overlaps with the pleasure of celebrity-watching.

 In 2015, following the publication of the first Didion biography by Tracy Daugherty, The Guardian ran an article headlined ‘From literary heavyweight to lifestyle brand: exploring the cult of Joan Didion’; New York Magazine promised to explain ‘Why Loving Joan Didion is a Trap’, describing Didion’s personal essays as ‘confession from its best angle’, an exponent of carefully curated vulnerabilities that are impossible to live up to; The Daily Beast’s review was entitled ‘Joan Didion’s Eternal Cool’. It is as if, in looking to contemplate the writing of Didion, the attachment itself becomes an obstruction. What is it about her writing that generates this response?

Didion’s relentless conviction, a trait that can be read as ‘cool’ or, in less generous light, as smugness, is central to her appeal. Sometimes, we like writers because they make us feel that their sharpness is ours. For this magic to occur, insights, stated and unstated, must arrive with such force that they seem not like opinion but fact. The promise of the phrase ‘let me tell you what I mean’ is that we are about to be equipped with one of the insights from which Didion draws her power and, once it has been delivered, we could conceivably hold some of that power ourselves. Part of this power trip’s attractiveness is the possibility that sharing Didion’s perception might permit us to float knowingly alongside her, above the objects of our judgment.

But Didion’s perceptivity is not wielded selectively, in the service of elevating her status, rather her judgment is as rigorously applied to her self-examinations as it is to her examinations of others. In a blunt autopsy of failed early-career efforts as a writer of short stories, an essay that includes an extensive catalogue of kind and unkind rejections, Didion describes her younger self as labouring ‘under the delusion that to set two sentences side by side was to risk having the result compared unfavorably to The Golden Bowl.’ In ‘On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice’ Didion wryly recalls fantasising about the Director of Admissions from the titular college witnessing her imagined attempted suicide. This self-flagellating voice reminds me of one of the more devastating essays in The White Album, Didion’s second collection, which begins ‘1969: I had better tell you where I am and why’, an announcement which precedes her confessing that she is in Hawaii, with her husband and daughter, ‘in lieu of filing for divorce’.

The tendency to make her recent and distant past the focus of the same critical eye that she sets upon all her subjects suggests that Didion, despite appearances, is not a smug or superior writer, but simply an incisive one.

If Didion can be said to have a brand, it has to do with a certain kind of compulsive honesty about her state of mind. Whatever appears before her – whether that be a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, or her own mental anguish – she subjects to the same scrupulous interrogation. It is an approach that presumes clarity is a writer’s aesthetic and moral obligation.

Didion frequently draws attention to her own fear. Because of the marvellously clipped assurance of her prose, the stark and hard-edged confidence of her claims, her capacity to describe this fear can be misinterpreted as a capacity to neutralise it. Didion, however, is never one to mistake a diagnosis for a cure – accurately describing a malaise does not necessarily eradicate it.

She ends a 1968 essay about a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Gardena, California, which appears in Let Me Tell You What I Mean but would have slotted comfortably into Slouching Towards Bethlehem, with the following anxious sentence:

I got out fast then, before anyone could say ‘serenity’ again, for it is a word I associate with death, and for several days after that meeting I wanted only to be in places where the lights were bright and no one counted days.

This article is an archetypal piece of Didion reportage, wherein she plunges into an environment that makes her deeply uncomfortable, organising her account around a series of quotes that reveal the quoted to be trapped by some error of thinking. In this case, Didion is troubled by what she understands to be a failure of responsibility; ‘mea culpa always turns out to be not entirely mea,’ she writes.

‘There was nothing particularly wrong with any of it,’ she comments, nebulously ‘and yet there was something not quite right, something troubling.’ This sentence describes the thesis of many Didion essays; the value of the perspective depends on the way it exposes an architecture of hopes and disappointments not by drawing back a curtain, but rather by candidly describing the surfaces. Record the scene with sufficient rigour and reasons for the not-quite-rightness will emerge.

Didion uses her distance from the subject to convey an attitude of quiet objectivity. Yet it is the fact of the distance that manifests judgment. In the essay’s conclusion, we see the emotional distance transform into physical distance, as the author becomes increasingly discomfited by, and eventually flees, her assignment. Fundamental to Didion’s writerly demeanour is a method of judgment made more stinging by a non-judgmental style. A string of flat observations take on a Lynchian quality – she describes a cake commemorating an attendee’s full year of abstention with pink icing that reads ‘MIRACLES STILL HAPPEN’; characterises a speaking style as a ‘subverbal swamp, snatching at phrases as they floated by’; and notes a young man sporting a ducktail haircut, seventeen years out of style – climaxing with her decision to leave.

The final eleven words – ‘places where the lights were bright and no one counted days’ – conjure a California dreaminess, a farmgirl’s imagined Los Angeles, a distracting brightness that will keep her mind away, Didion admits, from death. She is right to detect the presence of death in the Gambler’s Anonymous meeting. The group’s philosophy entails an acceptance of the inevitable end, a recognition that de-centres the individual. For Didion, such acceptance is akin to actually dying; for the members, it seems, such acceptance offers them a path to a better, more nourishing life. It is easy to dismiss Didion as indulging her California conservative tendencies – in the introduction to her 2001 collection, Political Fictions, Didion confesses that in 1964, she ‘voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter’ – and withholding human feeling, but despite her distant posture, she does not write herself as a figure liberated from delusion. The brilliance of her final image is that it encapsulates both her critique and her inchoate awareness of its deficiency. These desires to escape are, she knows, superficial, valued not for their substance, but for how they are lit, how they are counted.

Didion, as a reporter recording both the event and her reaction to it, seems caught between insouciance and panic. It is this coolly ambivalent figure to whom so many find themselves attached, an exquisite prose stylist recounting the creeping, amorphous anxiety we recognise in ourselves with the pinpoint nonchalance we aspire to project.

The paradox of Didion’s iconic status is that her particular celebrity, which we might also say distracts readers from her work, save for those final two elegiac memoirs, is the kind of object she would both deride and write about at length.

Indeed, in ‘Last Words’, Didion explains how Ernest Hemingway, in his final years, was treated by his eventual biographer as ‘an infinite resource, a mine to be worked, an element to be packaged into his various entertainment and publishing “projects”.’ Didion laments this commercialisation of a writer who wished ‘to be survived only by the words he would have determined fit for publication’:

What followed was the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body of work different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime.

Didion discovered Hemingway when she was twelve: ‘he taught me how sentences work.’ She describes his writing as ‘smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes’. The typical Didion sentence is also marked by this transparent flow.

Her subclauses – ‘and in fact tending to obscure’, for example – are models of simple clarity, chisels that strike away the blurry edges of a thought, getting at what matters (at what she means). This prose style required, however, an editorial control that Hemingway ceded in death.

Didion tells us that, following his suicide, a furniture company released an ‘Ernest Hemingway Collection’, its themes named for geographical locations associated with the author. This brings to mind the $1200 leather jacket with a picture of Joan Didion on the back, or Literary Hub’s subscription reward: a tote bag sporting a black and white photo of Didion, smoking rakishly. Most memorably, in 2015, Didion participated in a photoshoot for luxury French fashion label Céline, her face mostly concealed by enormous sunglasses. Announcing this ‘collaboration’ with Céline, Vogue – a publication for which a young Didion wrote captions and attended photoshoots similar to the one in which she was now a participant – described her as ‘an immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl’.

In January, Time asked Didion a series of inane questions, in response to which she provided appropriately abrupt answers.

What does it mean to you to be called the voice of your generation?

I don’t have the slightest idea.

You famously wrote a piece in 1991 suggesting that the Central Park Five were wrongfully convicted. How did you feel when they were exonerated?

However I felt didn’t get me or them anywhere.

How does it feel to be a fashion icon?

I don’t know that I am one.

Is there anything you wish to achieve that you have not?

Figuring out how to work my television.

This is a woman who has spent her life observing the transformation of cultural events into cultural memories, who understands both the inevitability and the crude reductionism of the process.

She is especially mindful of the misguided desire for redemption in neat resolution, so much so that a wariness of this impulse is woven tightly into her style. Among Didion’s most astonishing skills is her ability to identify how the most fearsome terrors are refined and compressed into the language of the everyday, and how this practice is both unavoidable and untruthful. One way she grapples with this paradox is by ending essays with quotes that undo themselves from the inside.

A 1968 article covering a Las Vegas reunion of World War II veterans – mostly ‘a happy occasion’ but shadowed by a subdued Vietnam War-related dread – concludes with one veteran reflecting on whether his fourteen-year-old son might, in four years, be conscripted to fight overseas. He considers the prospect of his child dying in combat, as contrasted with his own wartime experiences, and Didion leaves us with this restrained observation:

Walter Davis broke open a roll, buttered it carefully, and put it down again, untouched. “I see it a little differently now,” he said.

It is the man’s second use of this phrase, repeated like a mantra that might protect him from the worst.

So what, given his words, might we make of this worried veteran? He is opening a small gap, through which we can begin to imagine how the catastrophe of war might be made bearable, ordinary. To admit that the possibility of a child’s death could cause a parent to see things ‘a little differently’ is to intimate a mind that copes by breaking their life into tiny digestible pieces, because any other method would be intolerable. The words of those like Walter Davis are left without additional commentary because nothing else remains to be said. To editorialise would be to speak of something better passed over in silence.

In Didion’s 1968 profile of Nancy Reagan, after describing Nancy as seeming to play out ‘some middle-class American woman’s daydream circa 1948’ on a set ‘perfectly dressed, every detail correct’, she allows Nancy the final word:

“I don’t believe in being an absentee mother,” she says to me. “I just don’t.”

Having successfully portrayed California’s First Lady as a woman determined to present herself as an avatar of blandly pleasant American domesticity, Didion, with the unremarked upon quotation, allows Reagan unwittingly to sanction the unflattering depiction.

Didion ends on quotes because they authorise her clarifying distant style. As in her novel Play it as it Lays, where dialogue is frequently surrounded by empty space, Didion uses the words of others to beckon the reader in. This feeling of being invited in is, of course, part of what draws readers to the idea of Didion herself as well as her writing; this woman of such exacting evaluation likes us enough to ask us to join her. But to take the writing seriously is to be suspicious of such fantasies.

‘The most chilling scene ever filmed must be, for a writer,’ Didion tells us, in the Hemingway essay,

that moment in The Shining when Shelley Duvall looks at the manuscript on which her husband has been working and sees, typed over and over again on each of the hundreds of pages, only the single line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

This is chilling because it is an instance of mortifying exposure: an outsider discovering the artless mess of the writing life, the chaotic process between inception and publication. Didion’s specific genius, once again on display in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is that she orders her prose with such painstaking precision that one cannot help but glimpse the disorder roiling just beneath.