Didion, Joan 1934–
Ms. Didion, an American essayist and novelist in the tradition of Nathanael West, writes frightening and pessimistic novels in a contemporary, almost telegraphic, narrative style. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Obviously only a very gifted writer with a particular eye for the harsh, nonhuman, even anti-human extremes that surround our still fragile settlement on this continent would have brought into conversation the typical Joan Didion picture—Hell as Sunny California—the hills on fire in Malibu and the surfers joyfully sporting below. But Joan Didion constantly presents such moral symbols in her work with a sense of style that is both brilliant and inert, as befits a very vulnerable, defensive young woman whose style in all things is somehow to keep the world off, to keep it from eating her up, and so describes Southern California in terms of fire, rattlesnakes, cave-ins, earthquakes, the indifference to other people's disasters, and the terrible wind called the Santa Ana….
Joan Didion's sense of style is as much a display of manners in the old sense as is her special blend of elegance and despair. As she likes to say in her different writings, Everything you do counts. Every gesture tells a story, and in the moral realm, too, everything tells. This ability to give the most meticulous moral weight to personal despair, to put herself on the line, to show the unknown forces struggling to express themselves in any private hell, constitutes the appeal of Joan Didion's writing. She is constantly dramatizing herself—I was the woman, I suffer'd, I was there—but without her self seeming all that salvageable and important. Where everything matters in the inner space we actually live in, every word can matter in the reporting of a scene from life. Her point of view is not difficult, just wholly tragic….
What made Play It As it Lays so successful, gave it an attention few new novels get nowadays, is the graphic readability it makes of our "condition." The book proceeds by a succession of rapid closeups, scenes often just a chapter long, a tattoo of one-line exchanges that does everything it can to wing its message to the reader. There are some stunning descriptive scenes of Maria wildly driving the frightening California freeways to show that she can manage them, at Hoover Dam registering the throb of the turbines in her body. The book is a film that gets its rhythm from the most relentless cutting, and the silence between the curt scenes is calculated, disturbing. The book is so cunning in its rapid-fire rhythm … that all sorts of questions about the characters get overlooked under its spell of intimacy with dread….
The author is constantly handing the book's "meaning" over to the reader, and in a form that, like so many fashionable cinema effects, is easy for the audience to take but that flatters its quickness of comprehension. Joan Didion is so professional a moralist that the message becomes: nothingness is the medium in which we live. She is so skillful a demonstrator of the widespread lack of confidence among middle-class Americans that makes them shocking to themselves that she is destined for popularity…. She will never write anything that is not professional, not in shapely, exact, surprising sentences, that will not please and instruct.
Alfred Kazin, "Joan Didion's Portrait of a Professional," in Harper's (copyright © 1971 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the December, 1971 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), December, 1971, pp. 112-22.
Everything Joan Didion writes seems attuned to some physical anxiety surrounding her in the atmosphere of southern California. She is so responsive to the insecure surface of California that the inescapably alarmed fragility of the woman helps to explain the impending sense of catastrophe that informs so much of her work, the smartly written but brooding sense of nemesis that is the insistent theme of Play It as It Lays. One woman reviewer said that the book was not merely about nothingness, but that there was a "nothing" to the book's heroine, a movie actress who sees doom, falsehood, and violence everywhere in the Sunny West. Maria Wyeth gives herself at request to several moneyed Hollywood hoodlums, but seems to take no pleasure in her body.
Silence as a form and fear of imminent breakdown is a significant element in both Joan Didion's reportage and fiction. There are also a good many silences between her written sentences, which have a look of getting freshly loaded before they hit you. She refers often to her fragility in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and she writes about her panics with a deliberation that is not merely disarming but that always makes a point, in perfect style, about something other than herself….
The most striking feature of her spare, tight, histrionically desolate one-line sentences in Play It as It Lays is that, as in her reportage, all personal damage reflects cultural sickness. What Rough Beast Does Slouch Towards Bethlehem? When a visitor asked her to define the "evil" she sees on every hand, she replied: "The absence of seriousness." The lady is a moralist in an old-fashioned tradition. She feels "intellectually," she lays it all out, and somehow it is all so mod, empty, American, that you feel for her….
Hannah Arendt once remarked that she had never seen in Europe such unexplained personal suffering as she saw here. In Joan Didion's work the names given to physical threats and devastation, the brilliantly ominous details to present life in California, are meant to explain this suffering, but they don't….
What interests me most in her writing is what, from her woman's point of view renders the world incommunicable. Run River, a first book much less smart than her next two but evocative of Lily Knight McClellan's mysteriousness to herself, has an emotional depth that I much prefer to the brilliant journalism of Slouching Towards Bethlehem or the evasive sentimentality behind the rapid-fire technique of Play It as It Lays….
I am sure that in Joan Didion's deliberate mind, Run River is a novel about decline and fall in the Sacramento River Valley, and that the "pervasive sense of loss" she remembers from earliest childhood has been steadily translated into the many symbols—the disaster of the McClellans' marriage, Lily McClellan as a lost lady, the decline of a "certain pride"—that have made her almost too professional a writer about our moral condition. But the involuntary unacknowledged strength of her sensibility, the really arresting thing, is seen not in the clear cold eye, the writer's famous detachment, the "perfect" sentences, the amusing social cattiness about arrivistes and kept women and the huddled mob life of New York—but in the sense of fright, of something deeply wrong. No, the center is not holding. But the center is not the proprietary middle class that was in Sacramento, or the Establishment that tells us where the bodies have been buried after more powerful people have disposed of them. The "center" is that inner space, that moral realm, where, as Mark Schorer said in his review of Play It as It Lays, the question that keeps nagging is: "What makes us hurt so much? You have to be more than merely skillful with the little knives and so on to get away with it."
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 191-98.