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Tag: joan didion

Sock it to Me?

There is an uneven but engaging essay about Joan Didion by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. I read some of Didion’s early non fiction when I was in college and remember not liking it at all. But I revisited her famous collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem a few years ago and was duly impressed.

I never thought that being a man had anything to do with why I don’t connect with Didion’s writing, and while the following passage from Flanagan’s article is a generalization, it got me thinking:

…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.

I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury 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.

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures. Thompson’s work was illustrated by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque ink blots, and early Didion by the ravishing photographs of the mysterious girl-woman: sitting barelegged on a stone balustrade; posing behind the wheel of her yellow Corvette; wearing an elegant silk gown and staring off into space, all alone in a chic living room.

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. “I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,” a distinctly non-adolescent female voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.

I watched my mother dress stylishly throughout my childhood. She didn’t spend a lot of money on clothes though her tastes reflected the fashion of the moment–fringes jackets in the ’70s, shoulder pads in the ’80s. I remember what her clothing looked like, I can recall her flair for knowing how to look casual but elegant (in that oh so European way), but I have no idea what brands she bought. I never looked at the labels. I never cared about that stuff. I don’t know if she did either but she certainly would have known the difference between a famous designer and a cheap knockoff.

My Mother, somewhere in Africa, Fall 1966

Check out the entire profile. It’s worth your time, whether you care for Didion or not. And dig this reaction post at Forbes by Brett Singer. Also, here is a fine critique of Flanagan’s essay by Martha Nichols at Salon (with a good comment thread to boot).

New York Minute

I finished a novel this morning on my subway ride to work. I had to read the last paragraph twice and felt that peculiar almost weightless feeling that comes when you finish a book. I read the last page again and then looked up, disoriented. The car was crowded and two older women stood in front of me. I had noticed them before but didn’t want to break the spell of that last page.

Now that I was done I offered my seat to the shorter woman who looked older. She refused.

“You saying I look old?” she said and then smiled.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “If I see you again I won’t extend the courtesy.”

She liked that and when the person sitting next to me stood up at the next stop, she sat down.

“You know you are damned either way,” she said. “If you offer the seat you can offend someone’s pride, if you don’t offer it, you have no manners.”

“The worst is when you offer it to a woman you think is pregnant,” said her friend, still standing after she refused my offer to sit, too. “Then you find out she’s not.”

I told them that my parents raised me to have manners but for most of my life I performed acts of kindness selfishly, keeping score of how many nice things I’d done.

“Well, it’s karma,” said the standing woman.

“No,” I said, “it was a set-up to feel burned if things didn’t go my way.”

I said that now I do what I do because it makes me feel good not because it means anything else.

“That’s a good philosophy of life,” said the older woman sitting next to me.

I told her that it was a relief. We talked about courtesies and feminism and she said that women can confuse gender and manners. Then she said, “Where are we?”

“Two more stops,” her friend said.

I asked where they were going and the woman sitting next to me said, “Roosevelt Hospital.”

“Oh, for you or to see someone?” I said, regretting it as soon as the words came out of my mouth.

“I’m starting chemo today,” she said.

“Really? You look vital,” I said and regretted that even more.

She said she felt great but worried that her children were so upset.

“I told them that I’m as strong as I’ve felt in a long time,” she said and we talked about feeling helpless. Her kids are helpless to make her better and she is helpless to help them. As she spoke I remembered the review of the new Joan Didion memoir that I’d read last weekend in the New York Times. The book is about how the author handled the death of her daughter, which happened shortly after the death of her husband. John Banville concluded his review with:

The author as she presents herself here, aging and baffled, is defenseless against the pain of loss, not only the loss of loved ones but the loss that is yet to come: the loss, that is, of selfhood. The book will be another huge success, for reasons not mistaken but insufficient. Certainly as a testament of suffering nobly borne, which is what it will be generally taken for, it is exemplary. However, it is most profound, and most provocative, at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.

The older woman sitting next to me looked strong and she smiled and told me how much she liked her doctors. When we got to 59th street I leaned over and kissed her cheek and she stood up and the two women pushed through the crowded car. I looked after them and saw the older woman turn back and smile and me. I thought of my wife and how I always look after her when I leave her on the subway. The woman waved and then was gone.

[Photo Credit: Dark Magoo]

Dream a Little Dream

Found on-line: Joan Didion’s famous 1966 piece for the Saturday Evening Post, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an houreast of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal the California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalypts windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in die dry air, people who brought with them Mid-western ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took incurious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, 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 a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer.

Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.

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