Didion, Revisited

I didn’t know what I was getting into. Let me stipulate that from the start. When I agreed, last summer, to edit a three-volume edition of Joan Didion’s collected works for Library of America — the first, Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, has just been published, with two more to follow, in 2021 and 2022 — my impression was that the experience would be akin to coming home. Didion is the reason I became an essayist; I acknowledge that with no hyperbole. I was introduced to her work in 1980, when I was eighteen and first beginning to imagine myself as a writer in a serious way. At the time, I aspired to write novels. Then, my mother suggested I read Didion’s astonishing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays that investigate, by turn, the 1960s and the psyche of California. Both of these subjects were, and remain, of abiding fascination to me. As nonfiction writing came to be.

My mother’s advice, I should say, was cautionary; I was living, at the time, on Haight Street, taking a year off from school. She must have hoped the title essay, a stark and unrelenting portrait of the district during the so-called Summer of Love, might mitigate my countercultural tendencies. As it happens, she was right about that, but also wrong … or perhaps it’s most accurate to say that my reaction was complex. Living in Haight-Ashbury in 1980, it was difficult to dispute Didion’s assertions: that we’d lost a sense of collective narrative, that the liberatory intent of the romantic youth movement of the 1960s had dissipated into disolution and drugs.

I encountered the evidence whenever I left my apartment — burnouts and squatters selling grimy hits of blotter acid, panhandling in Buena Vista Park. The experience was like living in the aftermath of something, a cultural explosion that had left only detritus behind. I could see it in Didion’s sentences, in her declaration that “[p]eople were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.” I loved those lines even as they frightened me, even as they spoke to the vestigial streetscapes through which I moved. What charged me most was her ruthlessness, her clear-eyed distance; I admired the way her work relied on inference, as if she were speaking for us and for herself at once. Later, after I read The White Album, I would realize I’d been wrong about this, that she was writing not out of a universal sense of recognition but her own internal weather instead. “It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a frame verse, a ‘house blessing,’ which hung in a hallway in her house in West Hartford, Connecticut,” Didion admits there, “… This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of ‘ironic’ detail the reporters would seize on, the morning the bodies were found.”

As it happens, such a sensibility very much occupies the center of Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Featuring the first five of Didion’s books, it is a volume marked, in many ways, by dread. There’s the neurasthenic Lily Knight McClellan, who centers the author’s first novel Run River, published in 1963 — a character prone to spells and desperation, locked in a marriage not so much loveless as unconsoling. There’s Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays (1970), an actress whose defenses have been shattered, if they could be said ever to have existed at all. There’s Charlotte Douglas, from 1977’s A Book of Common Prayer, an American south of the border, trying to find a daughter who is, in every way that matters, lost. We think of Didion (as we should) primarily as a nonfiction writer, but when one reads these novels together with the essays, her career emerges as a continuum, with lines of thought and lines of influence that move back and forth across the books.

This is what I mean when I say I didn’t know what I was getting into — although, of course, I’d read and re-read everything. I had considered, I believed, the arc of Didion’s career, had traced the line of her obsessions and her thoughts. Of these, the most resonant involved her complicated relationship with narrative, which she both ascribes to and does not exactly trust. Do I need to say I feel the same? “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she begins the essay “The White Album,” and then, almost immediately qualifies the thought: “Or at least we do for a while.”

I’ve written many times about those lines, the paradox they encode; they represent, for me, a signature aspect of her work. And yet, reading these five books back-to-back (as well as those in ensuing volumes) allowed me to think about her in a different way. What I’m referring to is how these works talk to one another. If on the one hand, I’d been aware of this — the relationship, say, between Run River and Didion’s 2003 California memoir Where I Was From, which includes a critique of the novel as part of a reevaluation of her Sacramento roots — it is also the case that I had never quite recognized the depth at which not only the themes but also the content of her titles overlap. A Book of Common Prayer, for instance, with its attention to Latin America and American geopolitical influence, had long felt to me something of an outlier, especially against her other writing of the era. Yet it presages much of her work of the 1980s: the nonfiction books Salvador and Miami and, to an extent, her fourth novel Democracy. At the same time, its roots go back to the essay “In Bogotá,” which itself reads as an outlier in The White Album, until you consider it through that longer lens.

I’ve long been wary of re-reading: I’ve lost too many books that way. Still, in working on Didion: 1960s & 70s, I have had to learn to re-read at a different level, that of the career. Yes, Didion led me to become an essayist, and I continue to engage with her through that lens. For all that, however, I regard her now in terms of larger movements, a worldview that expands outward from California and the 1960s to encompass a broad social and political framework before turning inward with her memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. “[W]riters are always selling somebody out,” she declared in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. And: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.” In 2011, during an interview, I asked her about that, and what it meant now that she was writing about herself. Did her presence run counter to her own best interests? “Yes, she answered, “it is counter to my own best interests.” There it is again, that ruthlessness, that clarity, that cool ironic distance, the acuity of her eye. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion insists. “Or at least we do for a while.”

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DAVID L. ULIN is the editor of Didion: The 1960 & 70s, the first in a three -volume set of the author’s collected works, just published by Library of America.