Joan Didion Essay - Didion, Joan (Vol. 1)

Didion, Joan (Vol. 1)

Didion, Joan 1934–

American novelist and essayist, author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It as It Lays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Miss Didion] has passed beyond optimism and pessimism to a far country of quiet anguish, where the landscape resembles the flat, featureless, sunbaked Central Valley of her California childhood and a dream-land she sometimes longs for, a "ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather…." But she keeps on going, in this world….

Miss Didion writes carefully, with a perfect eye for detail and an unfoolable ear. I am sure she parts with her secrets with a certain regret, and out of a sense that it is somehow her duty not only to make what sense she can of the times, but to do what she can for the rest of us. We are, of course, all in the same pink boat.

C. H. Simonds, "Picking Up the Pieces" (© 1968 by National Review, 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), in National Review, June 4, 1968, p. 558.

Most of [Miss Didion's] essays … are written not only painstakingly, but painfully. We're not called to action; we're asked only to open our eyes, but to do so at the calculated risk of tears. Miss Didion's wise, fragile courage fears both fear and fearlessness; and suggests that true perspective begins through swallowed tears. In her preface, she warns, "writers are always selling somebody out." But Joan Didion knows how to "sell somebody out" like a lady.

Commonweal, November 29, 1968, p. 324.

There hasn't been another American writer of Joan Didion's quality since Nathanael West. She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it; and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward. A pool of blood forms in the mind. Meditating on it, you are both frightened and astonished. When was the wound inflicted? How long have we to live? Miss Didion's [Play It as It Lays] combines this surgical prose with a crushing fatalism (the title refers to a crap game) that obliges her people endlessly to circle themselves, reducing their radiuses of possibilities, seeking an exit from the "I"—and sets it all in the cities of the desert (Los Angeles, Las Vegas). While the result is not exactly pleasant, it seems to me just about perfect, according to its own austere terms….

What makes the world of this novel, a world in which the only reply to the question "Why?" is "Why not?", so heartbreaking and inescapable is Miss Didion's selection of details. There is nothing superfluous, not a word, not an incident. Personalities are more than sufficiently evoked in a single phrase …, and whole chapters are condensed into a single page. Such an economy testifies to a vision as bleak and as precise as Eliot's in "The Wasteland." And if Randall Jarrell was right in saying that Eliot would have written "The Wasteland" about the Garden of Eden, it is likely that Miss Didion would have written [Play It as It Lays] about Woodstock or Versailles….

For it is the condition of a woman's mind that is her subject; it is the "nothingness" after one has been used as an object that she explores; it is the facts beyond "answers" or "explanations" that she plays with….

John Leonard, in New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 21, 1970, p. 33.

Play It as It Lays is a Hollywood novel in the same peripheral sense The Day of the Locust is, attacking the subject with the indirection of art rather than the directness of commerce. Like Nathanael West's classic it is also brief, grotesque, allusive and chilling. Perhaps too much so….

I admire Miss Didion's control of this material, her accurate rendering of the callous inhumanity of a large segment of the movie world, which remains a constant no matter what the prevailing methods and styles of production. Nevertheless, perhaps because of her fashionably fragmented narrative style, perhaps because she never moves beyond cliché (or is it archetype?) in inventing actions and histories for her characters, the book remains a rather cold and calculated fiction—more a problem in human geometry (to which a neat QED can be applied at the end) than a novel that truly lives.

Richard Schickel, in Harper's, August, 1970, p. 101.

As a writer, Miss Didion is obsessed with peril and disorder in the everyday. She is at her worst when she serves up her obsessions, as she does from time to time, in magazine columns. There, written to the requirements of deadline and space, to be seen among the rival matters of passing interest, the everyday appears as common stuff, not so very perilous after all, a nice occasion to turn a neat confessional phrase or two. But when she is at her best—and … in fiction she is at her best—her honesty, intelligence, skill are wonders to behold.

"Centers of Dread" (condensed from Newsweek; © 1970 by Newsweek, Inc.), in Newsweek, August 3, 1970.

[Joan Didion's] prose [in Play It As It Lays] tends to posture like a figure from a decadent period of art, whose fingers curl toward an exposed heart or draped bosom swelling with suspect emotion. In our day the finger points straight groinward, but it isn't the direction that matters. It is the insistence that makes us suspect Joan Didion's own lack of faith in what she is writing and puts her book in that heartbreaking category—a bad novel by a very good writer.

Lore Segal, in New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 9, 1970.

For years [Miss Didion] has had an enviable underground reputation, which Play It As It Lays will probably bring to the surface. Part of the attraction is consistency—Joan never flinches from repeating herself. Didion addicts feel they know all about her eccentricities: the preoccupation with striped sheets and the Hoover Dam, the way she regards hair brushing as a form of existential prayer….

Like Faulkner, Didion has an overwhelming awareness of human corruption and a sense of unfathomable doom.

Martha Duffy, "Survivor's Report" (reprinted by permission of Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © Time, Inc., 1970), in Time, August 10, 1970.

Miss Didion is a writer who honors life, and who feels that its clarity and goodness have been blasted in our time. Ultimately, it is the force of her grief that gives meaning to her two novels. If her vision of the world is terrifying, it is also accurate. She knows the particular moral queasiness one feels in the presence of a gangster, the desolation of soul that would seem to be built into hotel rooms, the rat's maze of six-lane traffic in cities. This awful confusion is reflected in practically all writing, but Miss Didion's version is distinguished by her terrifying sense of what has been lost and how irreparable the damage is.

Guy Davenport, "On the Edge of Being" (© 1970 by National Review, 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), in National Review, August 25, 1970, p. 903.