Joan Didion Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Didion American Literature Analysis

As her essays and fiction demonstrate, Didion’s perspective on life is that of the witness who is both part of and apart from what she so critically observes. She is a loner, resistant to identification with any movement or label—despite her many contributions to The New York Review of Books, often considered a leftist publication. She is a moralist, although one who does not offer herself as a model for others, in thought or behavior. Yet even in the absence of high expectations for either herself or society, she does make great demands on both. While acknowledging the extent of disasters in ordinary lives, she requires a willed effort to probe constantly for whatever degree of self-control and self-affirmation is possible. This is what “living on the edge” means to her, and therefore to her characters: the edge as impending cliff or as opening frontier.

As Didion fought to overcome her shyness, she also risked visits beyond the continental United States—typically to southern places: Hawaii, Latin America, Indonesia. Her reportage has always been incisive and therefore useful as a portrait not only of political temperaments in tropical places but also of the peculiarities of the United States’ foreign policy. Too often, she implies, American alliances have been made with anticommunists who show no love of democracy. Such is the inference one draws from her novel A Book of Common Prayer and her nonfiction works Salvador and Miami. Didion does not pretend to be a social or political expert with an agenda of her own. She proceeds only from a carefully controlled mixture of detachment and compassionate interest in the possibilities of humane control of events. Her principal complaint is that American naïveté and arrogance have conditioned people to think that they are immune from reality and the forces of history.

The harshness of so much of reality, particularly for women such as the narrators or central characters in several of Didion’s novels, might suggest a natural affinity between Didion and feminism; however, she astonished radical feminists by her critical comments in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement” (reprinted in The White Album, 1979). There she asserted that women unaware of the Marxist roots of American feminism misunderstood how “networking” was being manipulated to substitute mass identity for the ideal of individual selfhood. Feminists, in turn, argued that Didion was one of them, so often did she picture women as helpless victims. Yet Didion has never blamed her personal problems on a patriarchal society, as some feminists have done.

Furthermore, although some of Didion’s male characters consider Maria, Charlotte, Grace, and Inez marginal, it is not their whims and weaknesses that Didion memorializes but their courage and persistence despite their seeming powerlessness. Such women find centers in themselves in the midst of crises and are not interested in controlling anyone else. Only Marin in A Book of Common Prayer, perhaps, is an exception, and she is the young revolutionary, the terrorist without a grasp of reality or a genuine cause.

For Didion, the impulse to write comes less from ideology than from curiosity. She writes not so much to persuade or incite to action or promote any movement as, according to her, to find out what she is thinking. In part, this reliance on herself as her own most accessible reader originated in the insignificance still attributed to women writers at the middle of the twentieth century. Consequently, she was free to write for herself and to find forms appropriate to her own perception of character and circumstance. Early in life she studied the techniques used by Ernest Hemingway to avoid abstraction and to particularize events. Her editor in chief at Vogue reinforced this hard focus, requiring exact language. Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” (reprinted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem) explains that the accuracy of a factual record has never been quite as important to her as ambience, the associations resurgent in her mind as she rediscovers what otherwise passing moments have meant to her. Details are important, most of all, as clues to insights.

Didion’s novels have particularly acknowledged the limitations of her narrators, the tenuousness of their hold on others’ reality, and the often-interrupted continuity of their lives. Nevertheless, it is just such limited but sensitive narrators whom she respects and even admires. Although her novels are compact, they convey an intensity often lacking in longer novels by her contemporaries. The inner lives of her female characters are troubled, sometimes by their very “innocence.” The greater menace, however, in Didion’s eyes, lies in the complacent, self-congratulatory outer worlds in which moral ambiguities go largely unrecognized. She prefers outsiders who—like herself—struggle to survive society’s losses of memory and of meaning.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

First published: 1968

Type of work: Essays

The anarchy of the 1960’s in the United States must be recognized and confronted, although perhaps it cannot be fully survived.

Didion rejected, but found that she could not ignore, the negative aspects of the drug culture associated with the anti-Establishment movements that grew out of the Beat Generation. Because it was threatening California’s frontier traditions of responsible self-reliance, she decided to put aside her preference for privacy and describe the disorder. She discovered that in many ways the so-called counterculture mirrored the shallowness of the Establishment against which it purported to take its stand. The dropouts shared the same self-centeredness, indifference, and casual relationships that marked large corporations.

Many of Didion’s articles from this period (including those on the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco) first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. She believed she was describing the nature of love and death in a “golden land,” as revealed in sensational murder cases, or the limited realities of splinter groups of communists, drug addicts, such pacifists as singer Joan Baez and her disciples in Carmel Valley, or the Diggers, who tried to feed society’s dropouts. Didion’s descriptions are so accurate in their particulars that they seem impersonal; her anxiety over the slow erosion of solid citizenship can only be inferred from behind a mask of gentle representation. She had so successfully learned to distance herself through concreteness and compression—practiced by imitating Hemingway and that earlier journalist and writer of fiction, Katherine Anne Porter—that individually the first essays hardly seem to warrant the warning implicit in her choosing William Butler Yeats’s foreboding poem “The Second Coming” as an epigraph to her book. Yet they are crucial to her indictment of a decaying society.

The later sections, subtitled “Personals” and “Seven Places of the Mind,” proceed with equally quiet portraits, which tend to provide the positive values that she is remembering and, through memory, defending. “On Keeping a Notebook,” for example, makes clear her invisible but close involvement in all that she describes—indeed, how each fragment is more essentially a clue to her feelings about herself than about the person or circumstance being reported. “On Self Respect” speaks of having the same courage to admit one’s mistakes as one’s disciplined ancestors had. “Notes from a Native Daughter” explains what it was about California in her childhood that brought her back to it from New York (whose own portrait is provided in “Goodbye to All That”). The code of conduct, an ethic of conscience that she associates with her California, is rendered somewhat abstractly in the essay “On Morality,” but its basis in family closeness is explicitly dramatized in “On Going Home.” Without such positive affirmations, Didion’s critique of her contemporaries’ negative outlook would have made her seem supercilious: a mere rebel against rebels without a cause.

The two aspects of American culture—the destructively artificial and the compassionately profound—are brought together in “Letter from Paradise, 21 19 N., 157 52 W.,” a study of Hawaii. Those islands can be a state of mind, a place for tourists to enjoy their fantasies, or, as it was for Didion, visiting the sunken Arizona with all of its memorialized dead still submerged, a place of profound meditation on infamous betrayals and the death of innocence.

Play It as It Lays

First published: 1970

Type of work: Novel

Maria is more authentic and more substantial than Hollywood people, including her director husband and her “best friend,” can ever realize.

The eighty-three brief scenes in this short novel at first appear to symbolize protagonist Maria Wyeth’s anxious sense of being a displaced, discontinuous person. However, their interrupted continuity also comes to represent the failure of the film industry to comprehend her complexity and her needs. Maria’s husband, Carter, never gets beyond his first image of her as an East Coast model; it is this superficial image that he prefers in the films which he makes of her. He is equally narrow in his attitude toward their daughter, Kate, born disabled. Carter has her institutionalized and attempts to prevent Maria from visiting her.

The fact that Maria’s own mother died horribly, alone in the desert and attacked by coyotes, has reinforced her maternal feelings. She identifies with her rejected child; both are marginal, considered outside the “in group” of the “beautiful people.” Starved for simple assurances that she is really alive and lovable, Maria has an affair with scriptwriter Les Goodwin. When she becomes pregnant, Carter declares that she must either have an abortion or never again see Kate. The fact that Les is already married drastically limits Maria’s options. Forced to choose between her two children, both wholly helpless, Maria agrees to the abortion; as a result of her guilt, however, she suffers recurring nightmares, including those of children being led to gas chambers.

Helene, who has always played the part of her closest friend, can provide neither understanding nor consolation. Instead she offers a partnership in a sadomasochistic ménage à trois with her producer husband, BZ. Eventually, however, even BZ realizes the emptiness of his lifestyle and invites Maria to join him in a final overdose of drugs. She resists, still loyal instinctively to finding a purpose for herself and for Kate through a relationship...

(The entire section is 4430 words.)