Compensating for her own physical frailty and fears persisting from childhood, Joan Didion has long identified with the resilience of her great-great-great-grandmother, who in 1846 left the Donner wagon train and followed a northern pass through the Sierras just before a Nevada blizzard isolated the main party and drove some of them eventually to cannibalism. That frontier example sustained Didion as her father, Frank Didion, an Army Air Corps officer, moved the family from base to base during World War II. She and her brother entertained themselves by watching films, and her mother advised her to keep busy by writing stories. Her sense of insecurity diminished only after their return to Sacramento, where the family land went back five generations. What remained, however, was her sense of the theatrical. Stories of her pioneer ancestors always included near disasters, life on the edge. Her early fears, therefore, of rattlesnakes, collapsing bridges, and atomic bombs came only in part from reality. They came also from an imagination stirred to excitement but not wholly believing in actual tragedy. Added to her imagination is a curiosity which, while she was an eighth-grader, led her, notepad in hand, to walk calmly into the Pacific Ocean: It was a life wish, not a death wish. A wave dumped her back onto shore.
During Didion’s senior year at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1956, she won first prize in Vogue’s nonfiction contest, along with an apprenticeship that, eight years later, had turned into an associate feature editorship. In New York City she never refused an invitation to a party, though she usually remained a silent observer. Meanwhile, in 1963, she published a first novel, Run River, a tale of a Sacramento valley dynasty, involving murder, suicide, and near-incest. The next year she married John Gregory Dunne, a writer for Time, who was as talkative as she was reticent. They moved from New York to California and in 1966 adopted a baby girl whom they named Quintana Roo (after a state in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula).
Although dismayed by escalating violence on the West Coast and desirous of making her separate peace, Didion forced herself to examine her times and, in 1968, published her essays on disorder in California and other places as Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
The effort caused her a serious breakdown. Although her second novel, Play It as It Lays (1970), was a best seller, critics who admired its cinematic style overlooked her compassion for Maria, the distraught narrator, and her admiration for the young mother’s perseverance.
During a visit to Colombia in 1973, Didion contracted nearly fatal paratyphoid fever. The experience helped her write her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), which contrasts the irresponsible “flash polities” of South American men with two North American “marginal women” whose spirit maintains the core of civilization.
In 1982, despite health problems, Didion had the courage to travel to war-torn El Salvador. The result was Salvador (1983), a long report on the murder common in that country’s ongoing revolution and the naïveté of American foreign policy. Without any political solutions to offer, Didion has to be satisfied with providing an honest record of the facts, the lies, the contradictions. History, she implies, is simply remembered events. Whether or not it contains heroic deeds, simply remembering accurately is heroism enough—especially for Americans, who, she claims, too often consider themselves exempt from history.
Didion’s novel Democracy , published in 1984, presents both a rich American woman unhappily married to a morally questionable presidential candidate and a covert agent whose insight into the real...
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world of insurrections and secret deals contrasts with the thinking of the candidate and his campaign manager.
Like Salvador, Didion’s extended essay Miami (1987) is more intensely political than Democracy and goes beyond the status of Cubans in Florida to the hidden federal policy on Fidel Castro’s regime.
Working as a team, Didion and Dunne wrote a number of screenplays together during the 1970’s, because the pay freed them later to write their novels, but they resented letting a film director make decisions of pace and texture that they thought should be the writers’ choices. Such an attitude is understandable because, for her own publications, Didion is an exacting taskmaster, requiring sometimes several years of revisions before her compressed short novels are released.
After she and Dunne divided their time between metropolitan Los Angeles and New York City in the mid-1980’s, they moved to the latter in 1988. There her writing continued, as she turned out books, essays for magazines (especially the New York Review of Books), and, again with her husband, teleplays and the screenplay for Up Close and Personal (1996). In her book After Henry, appearing in 1992, she collects previously published essays about Americans and American events, including crime and politics. Her novel The Last Thing He Wanted, published in 1996, resembles Democracy in its use of covert operations in its plot and a maritally troubled, rich woman as the protagonist.
Her subsequent books have been nonfiction, starting with the collection of essays titled Political Fictions (2001), in which she presents herself as cutting through to the political facts behind the fictions of the title and in which she describes herself as someone who grew up “among conservative California Republicans” who favored “low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government” that did not interfere in “the private or cultural life of its citizens.” She happily voted for Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican candidate for president in 1964, but, in part because of Ronald Reagan, eventually changed her registration to Democratic without, according to her, “taking a markedly different view on any issue.” In Political Fictions, Didion attacks persons usually considered on the left, as well as persons usually considered on the right in American politics, but notably shows her disdain for prominent Republicans, presenting Reagan as primarily an actor, even as president. Although she calls President Bill Clinton a sexual predator, she also deplores the investigation Kenneth Starr led into Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, claiming that a public official’s sexual conduct is no matter of public concern and that Starr and those supporting him were subverting American democracy.
Her next book, Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (2003), is a reprint of an essay first published in the New York Review of Books on January 16, 2003, with the addition of a preface by Frank Rich of TheNew York Times. After Rich’s verbal attack on President George W. Bush in his preface, Didion claims that America invaded Afghanistan because of the fixed ideas found in New York City and Washington, D.C., and foresees (before Operation Iraqi Freedom) that America will also invade Iraq, again because of fixed ideas. She also claims that fixed ideas have also hurt the United States in its restriction on using embryonic stem cells in medical research and its inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. America, says Didion, should rid itself of its harmful fixed ideas and study history to understand why jihadists attacked it. In this very short book, as in Political Fictions, Didion’s intent apparently is to point out faults in politicians’ thoughts and actions, rather than to explain with any detail what she would do were she in charge.
Where I Was From (2003), with the significant past tense in its title, marks a movement by Didion to a more personal story than in her previous two books, although even this book contains clear social and political commentary about the United States in general and California in particular. Didion studies her home state as a whole, the place to which her ancestors traveled in the mid-nineteenth century, breaking family bonds and gambling on success after perilous journeys across much of North America. She considers the changes in her own ideas, using passages in Run River, her 1963 novel, and she further develops her discussion by citing works from Californians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the philosopher Josiah Royce, the journalist Lincoln Steffens, and the novelists Jack London and Frank Norris. She has come to see, she claims, that the idea that California was once a place of self-reliant people is a historical illusion that obscures the reliance the state has long had on the railroads and then the federal government. In the next-to-last chapter, Didion tells of a moment of revelation in the summer of 1971 or 1972 while she is walking through the supposedly re-created “Old Sacramento” with her daughter and her mother: Didion then realizes that what she is walking through is “no more than a theme, a decorative effect,” and begins to sense the remoteness of her long family history and of “the dream of America, the entire enchantment” in which she has lived.
Beginning late in 2003, Didion endured hard personal times. Shortly before Christmas, her recently married daughter, Quintana Dunne Michael, fell ill, seemingly with influenza, but her condition so worsened that she suffered septic shock and was placed in a medically induced coma at Beth Israel North Hospital in New York City. After visiting her on December 30, Didion and her husband returned to their apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan, where, as she was about to serve supper, he collapsed at the dining table from a heart attack. Despite the efforts of the emergency medical technicians who arrived at the apartment to treat him, Dunne was pronounced dead that night at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Didion’s strong, professionally productive marriage of almost forty years ended suddenly, and her daughter was unable to learn the news until January 15, 2004. In The Year of Magical Thinking, published in late 2005, Didion recounts her efforts, despite both her rejection of Christian hope and her ordinarily powerful sense of reality, to make her husband come back through what she calls “magical thinking.” She recounts too her daughter’s critical illness, apparent recovery, eventual collapse in Los Angeles International Airport, and subsequent brain surgery. Didion finished the book before her daughter died in New York City on August 26, 2005, of pancreatitis. The Year of Magical Thinking won for its author a National Book Award in November, 2005.