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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).

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