Joan Didion

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Dean Flower (review date Summer 1977)

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SOURCE: “Fiction Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 311-12.

[In the following review, Flower praises Didion's handling of the difficult plot and character development in A Book of Common Prayer.]

\Let's] take a look at Joan Didion's masterful third novel, A Book of Common Prayer. On its first page she quietly makes reference not to Cranmer but to Ford Madox Ford. “Charlotte would call her story one of passion. I believe I would call it one of delusion.” Not just the subtitle of The Good Soldier but its slow-learning narrator, its romantic protagonist, its disordered siftings of the past, its overlappings and repetitions; all the book owes much to Ford. In perfect control of this difficult form, Didion writes with an inspiration entirely her own. The first-person narrator is Grace Strasser-Mendana, a widowed American woman dying of cancer who owns much of Boca Grande, which is the hypothetical Central American state where the story begins and ends. She undertakes to give an account of the confused life and pointless death of Mrs. Charlotte Douglas, whose two marriages and two daughters have variously died. We are told it “does not matter who ‘I’ am,” but in fact it matters a great deal. The narrator distrusts most people's words, pointing out bitingly their imprecisions, lies and evasions; she prefers the clear terminology of her own scientific papers. Or so she thinks. Her portrait of Charlotte begins with unsparing criticism, near contempt: “it was characteristic of Charlotte that whenever the phrase ‘realistic but optimistic’ appeared in a school communiqué she read it as ‘realistic and optimistic.’” Thinking about the ambiguity of existence in the tropics, she tries to tell Charlotte “A banana palm is no more or less ‘alive’ than its rot,” but Charlotte again does “not quite see my point.” For she is a childish romantic: “Every memory was ‘lyrical,’ every denouement ‘hilarious,’ and sometimes ‘ironic’ as well.” It seems her enthusiasm would be charming if it weren't so ignorant: “She used words as a seven-year-old might, as if she had heard them and liked their adult sound but had only the haziest idea of their meaning. …”

But the narrator comes to appreciate contradictions in Charlotte—she's squeamish yet tough, naive yet experienced, selfish yet deeply feeling—things that resist classification. Subtly our sympathies are shifted. We learn that Charlotte has been surrounded too long by sophisticated, highly verbal, ironic people. Here's the way her bitter husband, Warren Bogart, sneers about her new life: “Excuse me. I mean your ‘life-style.’ You don't have a life, you have a ‘life-style.’ You still look good though.” Once as her English instructor at Berkeley Warren angrily tore in half an essay she wrote. Her second husband, Leonard Douglas, is a lawyer whose professional attitude toward his wife's sensibility veers from tolerant condescension to angry sarcasm. He's brilliant at law, not love. Charlotte adopts a defensive irony, but her heart is not in it: “that's pretty much what happens everywhere, isn't it,” she says. “Somebody cuts you? Where it doesn't show?” Once the narrator apologizes, “It was a joke. Irony.” “Is cheap,” Charlotte replies. In some ways Charlotte shares this universal habit of criticizing words. She writes a letter to a newspaper objecting to its phrase for her, “reclusive socialite,” as a contradiction in terms. And nobody in this novel full of word critics suffers more than Charlotte over false terms, from her daughter's crazy revolutionist jargon to the language on her baby's death certificate.

The intricate plot resists summary because it depends on innumerable, subtly re-forming and enlarging impressions. What...

(This entire section contains 879 words.)

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happens, simply, is that we are gradually led to appreciate why Charlotte made no move to escape when revolution came to Boca Grande, and thus assured her own death. That revolution is played off against Charlotte's series of domestic upheavals, not least of which is her daughter's share in hijacking an airliner in California. As the narrator acidly observes, revolutions are made “entirely by people we know.” Balancing these destructions, however, is the spiritual revolution of the narrator, who learns Charlotte's full tragedy as the scales drop from her eyes. Not only does Didion succeed in making a retrospective novel move with tautness and suspense, but in focusing its moral issues perfectly. Linguists and philosophers will not be surprised to learn that the deepest issue is language, but Didion's interest is purely moral: to show the ways people haggle about words when they want to defend themselves, attack each other, preserve illusion, prevent thought, and justify revolution. Everyone argues about the proper terms and the right names for things, or else assumes his own words are right and best. Appropriately,boca grande means “big mouth.” The narrator once voices her author's underlying conception: “I had never before had so graphic an illustration of how the consciousness of the human organism is carried in its grammar.” Didion shows both the necessity of this argument about language—is there a fit language to convey Charlotte's tragedy?—and the swath of destruction it cuts. Her ear for ironic repetitions and satiric jabs is wickedly entertaining at first, then disturbing. How desperately we need a common language in which our common weaknesses and suffering might be shared, not Esperanto, but a Book of Common Prayer.


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Joan Didion 1934-

American essayist and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Didion's career through 1997. See also Joan Didion Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 14, 32.

Didion is one of the most highly regarded contemporary American writers of essays and novels. In her writing she focuses on the disintegration of American morals in both the public and private spheres and the cultural chaos that results from individual and societal fragmentation, using her own subjective experiences and observations as a vantage point.

Biographical Information

Didion was born in Sacramento, California, in 1934. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956, she took a job as a promotional copywriter at Vogue magazine in New York, eventually rising to the position of associate feature editor. In this period she met and married John Gregory Dunne, with whom she collaborated on screenplays. Didion's first novel, Run River, was published in 1963, while she still worked at Vogue. The next year she and Dunne moved back to California, where Didion worked as a freelance reporter. Didion's writing soon attracted national attention, and some of her impressive early essays were collected in her first nonfiction work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Didion has earned numerous awards and honors for her writing.

Major Works

Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (1979) are both collections of Didion's journalistic essays, many of which criticize what Didion saw as the collapse of American culture in the 1960s and the shallow inarticulateness of members of the hippie movement. Intermingled with these observations are chronicles of Didion's personal struggles with debilitating migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. In the title essay of The White Album, which concerns both the national chaos of the summer of 1968 and her own nervous breakdown at that time, Didion quotes the psychiatric evaluation she underwent and rejoins, “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” This essay illustrates well the emphasis Didion places in all her writing on the relationship between personal and public dissolution. Geographic locations play an important role in emphasizing themes in Didion's works. The setting for Maria Wyeth's nihilistic crisis in Play It As It Lays (1970) is the superficial world of Hollywood, where people use one another to advance their own status. In A Book of Common Prayer (1977) the violent uprisings in the fictional Latin American country of Boca Grande mirror the sexual and emotional crises of Charlotte Douglas, who is eventually murdered, her body dumped at the American embassy. Turbulence and brutality again dominate Salvador (1983), Didion's book-length essay on the two-week trip she took with her husband in 1982 to El Salvador during a period of violent political upheaval. Like most of Didion's nonfiction, Salvador is not an objective report of facts but a detailed and personal account of the terror that pervades daily existence in such a place. In the novel Democracy (1984) Didion returned to her concern for the loss of traditional values and the absence of viable new ones. The story can be read on several levels: as a murder mystery, a love story, and an exposure of the fraudulence of public life. The various narrative threads interweave to form a picture of America's political decline and moral decay. Somewhat disarmingly, Didion provided the narrator with her own name, forcing the reader to question the fictional nature of the other characters. In the nonfictional Miami (1987) Didion indicts U.S. foreign policy from the administrations of John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan, concentrating on the thirty-year history of Cuban emigres living in Miami. After Henry (1992) is a collection of twelve essays organized around the geographic locations of Washington, D.C., California, and New York City, which Didion regards as the touch points at which the American dream collides violently with the corrupting influence of power. The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is a difficult, circuitous romantic thriller that many critics have found to read more like an extended prose poem or a screenplay than a traditional narrative. Didion again used the backdrops of Hollywood, Florida, and Central America to weave a tale of covert activity, political intrigue, and personal fragmentation.

Critical Reception

While critics are sometimes sharply divided over the effectiveness of Didion's unorthodox narrative and journalistic styles, almost all agree that the quality of her writing is exceptional. Known as a perfectionist, Didion values grammatical and rhetorical precision, which many reviewers hail as a great strength regardless of their opinion of her social and political analysis. Overall, Didion's essays are more highly regarded than her novels; Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album contain what many consider some of the best writing available on events in the 1960s. But the novels, too, despite mixed reviews, are praised for eschewing florid romanticism in favor of acute detail and sometimes morbid description of dark human impulses. While some critics accuse Didion of occasionally slipping into arrogance and snobbishness, John Leonard summarized the opinions of many others when he observed, “Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion.”

Victor Strandberg (essay date Summer 1981)

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SOURCE: “Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 225-42.

[In the following essay, Strandberg examines Didion's themes of alienation, sexuality, morality, and salvation in A Book of Common Prayer.]

In her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem (which begins by reciting all of “The Second Coming”), Joan Didion wrote that for several years certain of Yeats's images—“the widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”—comprised “the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.” Above all, Yeats's image of the dissolving center—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has proved to be Didion's master metaphor not only for society at large but for the individual personalities in her writings. Of her sojourn among the Haight-Ashbury dropouts that led to her title essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she writes, “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” Not surprisingly, her subsequent novel Play It As It Lays portrays the effect of the missing center in the suicidal vacuity of her two leading characters, whose final “Why?” and “Why not?” mark a barely distinguishable to be or not to be.

In A Book of Common Prayer, the problem of the missing center shows up not only in her fictional Haight-Ashbury type, the dropout-revolutionary Marin Bogart, but in all of her major characters. Discussing her novel with an interviewer from The New York Times, Didion responds to her interviewer's observation that Charlotte Douglas “doesn't seem to have a center, something in herself for which she's living,” with this extension of the Yeatsian metaphor: “I don't know too many people who have what you could call clearly functioning centers. … It is a problem for all of us to find something at the center. … I think most of us build elaborate structures to fend off spending much time in our own center.” For lack of anything better in this post-Christian era, Didion observes that the center is likely to be filled with “certain contemporary demons”—Yeats's rough beast in the cradle—of which she specifies two: “flash politics, sexual adventurism.”

Didion's disdain for flash politics is evident throughout her book, blatantly rendered in her juxtaposition of Latin American political violence against the playschool revolution of Marin's terrorist group, more subtly rendered in Leonard Douglas' radical chic activities, which include flying off to address a Day of Rage memorial fully aware that while he speaks another man is undertaking to run off with his wife. Sexual adventurism is the deeper issue, taking us into Didion's extended treatment of female identity that comprises the book's most original, profound, and brilliant achievement. In the end, what she has achieved is a female counterpart of The Great Gatsby—a book she favors in her essays—redeploying in her own gender Fitzgerald's basic gambit of assigning a detective-narrator to search out the inner truth about a mysterious newcomer (“an outsider of romantic sensibility”) who has set the neighborhood abuzz with reports of inexplicable behavior.

Like Nick Carraway, who begins by saying Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” Grace Strasser-Mendana opens her narrative with a negative judgment: “Charlotte would call her story one of passion. I believe I would call it one of delusion.” But in the end, it is the sophisticated observer, and not the inalterably naive main character, who is transformed by a correction of vision. As Grace comes to see it, “I am more like Charlotte than I thought I was.” “I am less and less certain that this story has been one of delusion. Unless the delusion was mine.” Indeed, this alteration in the witness—from distaste and incredulity to affinity and admiration—gives both The Great Gatsby and A Book of Common Prayer their fundamental design, enabling Fitzgerald and Didion to defend America's traditional middle-class ideals, which is what Gatsby's “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and Charlotte's “delusions” turn out to encompass.

Among the passions and delusions that Grace discovers in Charlotte's center, sexual passion—or “adventurism”—comprises the most ambiguous and the most typical of modern life. Whereas Gatsby had to settle for a single ecstatic kiss, approached “at an inconceivable pitch of intensity,” Charlotte Douglas practices free sexuality with a series of lovers. Grace's earliest impression of Charlotte as a sexual adventuress, with a large emerald having displaced her wedding ring and with “clothes that seemed to betray in their just perceptible disrepair … some equivalent disrepair of the morale, some vulnerability, or abandon,” is later borne out by the “sexual freight” of Charlotte's gestures, her “reflexively seductive” manner.

Underscoring the emergence of sexual adventurism as a final bastion of meaning in modern life is its concurrence with the holiest festivals of the Christian calendar: two of Charlotte's most casual encounters, with Victor and with Pete Wright, take place on Christmas Eve and on Easter Sunday morning, respectively. By the time she meets Gerardo, her final lover, her sexual volatility is so obvious that his successful proposition comprises “the third thing Gerardo ever said to Charlotte Douglas.” It is this volatility, and not the disappearance of his daughter—whom Warren Bogart dismisses with two words: “Fuck Marin”—that brings Warren across the continent in his effort to fill his own center with meaning before his time runs out. “You like it too much,” Warren says, apropos of arranging a ménage à trois; “You like it more than anybody I ever knew.” But he likes it too; Charlotte's passion is exactly what makes her his type of woman: “We could have been doing this all our lives. We should be doing this all our lives. We should have done this all our lives.”

Unfortunately, Charlotte's liberated mores do not suffice to define her sex life as merely harmless fun. Even apart from Grace's rather old-fashioned tone of disapproval, Charlotte's sexual passions lead inescapably to a messy, emotionally chaotic life, surrounded by embattled males. The pleasant thrill of being fought over by strong men implies a female archetype as old as Helen; Daisy Fay filled her vacant center similarly for a time watching her husband and Gatsby locked in that primeval battle. When the males are Latin macho types, however, the game may quickly become dangerously unpleasant. Charlotte's eventual murder seems ordained within hours of her first night with Victor, in a chapter that leads off with Grace's image of two mating flies and concludes with a sample of Antonio's pistol-packing violence and psychopathic sexual spite: “‘Maybe I'll go get your norteamericana to sit on my face,’ Antonio said to Victor.”

Long before Antonio settles his account with Charlotte and Victor, however, her sexual freedom produces more emotional anarchy than fulfillment in her center of being. There is the delightful scene with the corkscrew, for example, which is worth citing in detail:

she was … incapable of walking normally across a room in the presence of two men with whom she had slept. Her legs seemed to lock unnaturally into her pelvic bones. Her body went stiff, as if convulsed by the question of who had access to it and who did not. Whenever I saw her with both Victor and Gerardo it struck me that her every movement was freighted with this question. Who had prior claim. Whose call on her was most insistent. To whom did she owe what. … If she needed a bottle of wine opened … she could never just hand the corkscrew to Gerardo. Nor could she hand the corkscrew to Victor. Instead she would evade the question by opening the wine herself, usually breaking the cork.

And, much later, Grace complains that the “sexual current” in Charlotte threatens to “reverse the entire neutron field on my lawn.” Certainly it does appear to be “disturbing and altering not only the mood but possibly the cell structure” of her three male spectators:

Gerardo watched her as she ran across the lawn.

Victor watched her as she ran across the lawn.

Antonio crouched on the lawn. …

Norteamericana cunt,” Antonio said. …

In dealing with this motif of sexual current, Joan Didion has performed a badly needed service for American literature. John Updike—no novice at writing about sex in his own right—has observed that American literature is notoriously thin in its portrayal of women. For one thing, a number of our finest women writers have been less than typical of the gender—spinsters and recluses like Emily Dickinson or lesbians like Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather. For another, even our most sensitive male writers have displayed sharp limitations in their imagination of what it means to be a woman. Not Hawthorne or Henry James or Faulkner ever rendered woman's sexual energy (and Grace's response to it) with Didion's sureness of touch; nor did any of them ever reach far enough into the female psyche so as to come up with Didion's twin “commonplaces of the female obsessional life”—“sexual surrender and infant death. … We all have the same dreams.”

So far as sexual surrender is concerned, Charlotte's “passion” involves one perfectly standard element of female psychology: the determination to entice and to capture the most superior—that is, successful—male in the surrounding herd. Thus it is not surprising that she chooses as bed partners the dictator of Boca Grande and the playboy-scion of the island's wealthiest family, and as husbands a prominent lawyer and her college English teacher (a superior male from her coed's-eye-view, at least).

As a revelation of female sexual psychology, this latter relationship is the most complex and fascinating in the book. On the face of it, Warren Bogart's victory over Leonard in their battle for sexual possession of Charlotte appears to be a mystery. Unlike Leonard, Warren is crude, obnoxious, totally selfish, impecunious, professionally unsuccessful, and sexually unfaithful. But offsetting all those damaging characteristics are the intelligence and virility that give Warren “the look of a man who could drive a woman like Charlotte right off her head.” That virility, beginning in the bedroom (“We should have been doing this all our lives”), focuses upon Charlotte with a flattering and exciting intensity. He has come these three thousand miles, Warren says, neither to save Marin nor to bring Charlotte home with him (her surmise) but simply because “I just wanted to fuck you again”—which had also been Leonard's suspicion. A coarse approach, to be sure, but one which renders sincere tribute to the woman's beauty. This biological nexus between female beauty and male potency has evoked a memorable and relevant meditation by Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The sexual organs are the most sensitive organs of the human being. … An eye will not stop seeing if it doesn't like what it sees, but the penis will stop functioning if he doesn't like what he sees. I would say that the sexual organs express the human soul more than any other limb of the body. … They tell the truth ruthlessly.”

Warren Bogart also tells the truth ruthlessly outside the bedroom. What perhaps most drives a woman like Charlotte off her head is the social virility and intelligence of the man, that total reliance on his own psychic resources which enables him to stand in clear definition against the spongy liberal chic of the times. Even his ethnic slurs—against Jews, Arabs, Armenians—are offered mainly as a liberal-baiting exercise (Charlotte had been to the Democratic National Convention in 1964, a year when Joan Didion voted for Barry Goldwater); in any event, Warren evens the balance politically with his deft and total destruction of “Irving” the FBI man. For all his repulsive qualities, Warren Bogart exhibits a sexual magnetism that could be instructive to even our finest male writers.

So far as “passion” is concerned, in sum, Charlotte has been a sexually active, adventurous, liberated modern woman. But her sexual freedom has not filled her emotional center, as she makes clear in her parting remark to her last bed partner, Gerardo, when he begs her to flee with him on Day Eight: “I wasn't connected to you actually.” In the old-fashioned preliberation style, she has continued to focus her deepest passion upon Warren, her first lover and the only male able to dominate her psychologically. Not even her ploy of conceiving a baby with Leonard could succeed in stifling that innermost flame from flaring out of control in Warren's presence. The reason Charlotte runs off with Warren, leaving Leonard, is no more mysterious in the end than the primitive rite on the Orinoco “where female children were ritually cut on the inner thigh by their first sexual partners, the point being to scar the female with the male's totem”; and though Warren's cut “doesn't show” on Charlotte, he asserts that totemic power the moment he greets her: “Get somebody to wash and iron that, Charlotte. … The suit just needs pressing.”

If Charlotte turns out to be, under her avant-garde veneer, an old-fashioned, middle-class, one-man woman, the book's other characters cannot claim any superior success in more genuinely espousing the new freedom of sexuality. Apart from Warren, whose zeal appears heightened by his race against terminal illness, the sexual encounter does little for anyone's emotional center: Victor is bored by his noontime manicurist; the “intimations of sexual perfidy” that abound at Morgan Fayard's home lead to an evening of strident disharmony; the OAS man makes an ugly scene when Charlotte (who had saved his life with an emergency tracheotomy) refuses to fellate him on the hotel terrace; the two lesbians from Miss Porter's School virtually break up when the younger one makes a pass at Charlotte (“The older one wept”); and Bebe Chicago's life as an aging gay seems pathetic: “‘Spare me any more of Bebe Chicago's calls.’ Victor \having wiretapped them] mimicked a whispery falsetto. ‘Ricardo? … C'est moi, chéri. Bebe.’” It all adds up to what Faulkner called “the vain evanescence of the fleshly encounter.” Regrettably, sexual passion appears even less viable within marriage than in these joyless fornications and adulteries. As though confirming Updike's thesis (via Denis de Rougemont) about the incompatibility of marriage and passion, Didion portrays both Charlotte's marriage to Leonard and the marriage of Dickie and Linda as having become sexless, while Grace's marriage to Edgar had never pretended to be anything more than an economic arrangement. Perhaps Grace's aunt was right “to locate the marriage bed as the true tropic of fever and disquiet.”

If “passion”—sexual passion, at any rate—clearly fails to fill Charlotte's center of being, especially after she has left Warren, that leaves the other wing of Grace's theme statement to consider: “I would call it \her story] one of delusion.” It is this motif of delusion which, modulating into the book's master theme, most closely identifies Charlotte Douglas as a female counterpart to Gatsby, for her “delusions” originate, like Gatsby's, in her upbringing as the archetypal all-American girl dedicated to the quintessential middle-class ideal of self-improvement (“improving one's world and one's self simultaneously” is how Didion's essay “Good Citizens” puts it). Thus Gatsby's regimen of self-improvement as a boy in North Dakota—“Dumbbell exercise,” “Practice elocution,” “Work,” “Read one improving book or magazine per week,” “Save $5.00 \crossed out] $3.00 per week,” “Be better to parents”—finds its analogue in Charlotte's girlhood in Hollister, California: “As a child of the western United States she had been provided … with faith in the … virtues of cleared and irrigated land, … of thrift, industry and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history. She was a norteamericana.” To this portrait are added actions that bespeak the “diffusion of competence” that Eric Hoffer has pronounced a distinguishing characteristic of North American society. She kills a chicken with a bare-handed gesture; she field-strips her cigarettes; she performs a successful emergency tracheotomy; she dispenses cholera vaccine for thirty-four straight hours—actions that leave the Boca Grandeans “staring” and “speechless” and lead to Victor's violent revulsion: “Disgusting. … Filthy. Crude. The thought of it makes me retch … the kind of woman who would kill a chicken with her bare hands.”

This reaction reveals as delusory another crucial component of the North American ethos: “She believed the world to be peopled with others like herself.” Loss of innocence concerning this delusion has been a prevalent theme in American literature—one thinks of Melville's Captain Delano, of James's Isabel Archer or Christopher Newman, and, again, of Nick Carraway, who had to find out for himself, through witnessing Gatsby's ruin, the truth of his father's warning that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” In all these instances, passage from innocence to awareness involves a juxtaposition of cultures. Just as Scott Fitzgerald summoned Gatsby/Nick from their native midwest so as to limn their “fundamental decencies” against the corruptions of the Eastern elite, Joan Didion brings Charlotte/Grace to Boca Grande to establish in the highlight of contrast the superiority of their original norteamericana ethos. The quintessence of the North American ethic, outlined in Himalayan relief against the code of the jungle in Boca Grande, is summed up in four words: take care of somebody. “It doesn't matter whether you take care of somebody or somebody takes care of you,” Warren says—“It's the same thing in the end.” It's all the same, too, whether this moral stance is efficacious and reciprocal, or hopeless (taking care of the hydrocephalic baby) and without recompense (taking care of Marin). All that matters in the end is that this act of emotional investment fills Charlotte's center with an immensely vitalizing psychic energy and purpose, in the same way that Gatsby's impassioned devotion to Daisy fills his.

Having lost both of her husbands and both of her children, Charlotte finds in Boca Grande only one outlet for her norteamericana “delusions”: she “takes care of” Boca Grande. Her work ethic, expanding in North American fashion from self-improvement to improvement of the surrounding environment, fastens upon three of the island's most dreadful needs: for cultural nourishment, she plans a film festival and boutique; for the public health, she dispenses cholera vaccine thirty-four hours without stopping; for limiting of population—Latin America's most desperate need—she works in a birth control clinic. In thus taking care of her South American environment, the norteamericana is as ineffectual as she was in her earlier attempts to take care of her husbands and children. Her film festival and boutique never get past the laughter stage, she loses control over the supply of vaccine, and in the birth control clinic she plumps witlessly for diaphragms, not discerning that the native women can use only the IUD effectively.

No question about it, in Boca Grande Charlotte's North American ideals are delusions. But these delusions are vindicated in the end by an insight perhaps best described by Joseph Conrad—a writer whom both Didion and Fitzgerald have acknowledged as a guiding influence. Conrad was speaking, in Heart of Darkness, of the concept of empire, which “is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea … and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. …” The mistake does not consist in having the delusion; it lies in examining that vitalizing idea too closely, “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” As Robert Penn Warren put it, speaking of Conrad, “the last wisdom is for man to realize that though his values are illusions, the illusion is necessary, is infinitely precious, is the mark of his human achievement, and is, in the end, his only truth.”

Both Gatsby and Charlotte become victims of delusion most of all by centering their passion upon love objects that are palpably unworthy of such devotion, creatures who in fact no longer resemble the sweetheart or daughter being lovingly remembered. In doing so, both characters exhibit arrested emotional development: “Can't repeat the past? … Why of course you can” is as much Charlotte's delusion as Gatsby's, despite the warning from Grace's aunt—”Remember Lot's Wife, avoid the backward glance.” But in drawing this parallel between Charlotte and Gatsby, it is important to discern as well the differences between them grounded in gender identity. As a suitor who lost his woman to a superior male—superior by birth and wealth—Gatsby can repair his damage to his sense of worth, that “Platonic conception of himself” which Daisy subserves, only by making that woman admit she was mistaken; and this effort to make her admit “You never loved him” is exactly the point at which his five-year dream shatters (“Oh, you want too much! … I can't help what's past”).

Charlotte, woman-wise (as Didion would have it), grounds her identity in her “occupation Madre”; her need is to repair the damage to that self-image caused by her daughter's repudiation. By waiting for Marin to fly to Boca Grande, much as Gatsby waits at the end for Daisy's phone call—and both wait faithful unto death—Charlotte illustrates a theme that was, again, of paramount importance to Joseph Conrad: “Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas. … It rests notably … on the idea of Fidelity.” For Joan Didion, who describes herself as “committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities,” fidelity translates into “our loyalties to those we love,” especially within the context of “the basic notion that keeping promises matters.” Inasmuch as Didion couches these precepts—the only absolutes in an age of moral chaos—in terms of woman's psychology, perhaps her truest analogue traces back beyond Gatsby and Conrad to Henry James's Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (a work cited in Didion's essay “The Women's Movement”).

Especially in the image of “Charlotte's body … found, where it was thrown, on the lawn of the American embassy,” do we see the elevation of the “Norteamericana cunt” to Portrait of a Lady status, both parts of Antonio's vulgar phrase being transfigured by Charlotte's martyrdom into her highest encomium. In James's novel, the distinctive American ideology—“Take hold of something”—begins with “the sense that life was vacant without some private duty that might gather one's energies to a point” and develops into an attitude perfectly descriptive of Charlotte in Boca Grande: “\Isabel] had said to herself that we must take our duty where we find it, and that we must look for it as much as possible.” In the end, “Take hold of something” for James, as for Didion, means “take care of somebody,” portrayed in Isabel's self-martyring care of Pansy.

Not even the imaginative empathy of James, however, can measure up to Joan Didion's rendering of the female psyche, especially as portrayed in her novel's prevailing Mother-Child imagery. The two supremely moving scenes in the book raise that imagery virtually to Madonna and Child magnitude. One of those scenes is that in which Grace reclaims Marin by the power of a single word (“‘Tivoli,’ I said”), on behalf of Charlotte's memory. The other episode shows Charlotte, with her doomed baby, demonstrating exactly what it means to take care of somebody:

Mérida was where she had taken the baby to die of complications, her baby, Leonard's baby, … the baby born prematurely, hydrocephalic, and devoid of viable liver function in the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans. … The doctors had said the baby would die in the hospital but it did not. … Toward the beginning of the two weeks she waited for the baby to die she moistened its lips with tap water and told it about the places they would see together. …

The night in Mérida when the diarrhea finally came Charlotte held the small warm dehydrating creature in her arms all night. … she had not wanted the baby to die without her. … She walked with the baby on the dark asphalt. She sang to the baby out on the edge of the asphalt … walked there with the baby in her arms, trusting at last, its vomit spent. The doctor … marked the death certificate in English: death by complications.

Further heightening the maternal consciousness that pervades this book are numerous additional allusions to births, babies, and child-rearing. Boca Grande itself—the name “Big Mouth” could be a sexual pun—is a place of “amniotic stillness” to which Charlotte came in hopes that here her child would be reborn to her: “in a certain dim way Charlotte believed that she had located herself at the very cervix of the world, the place through which a child lost to history must eventually pass.” (In so far as Marin is in danger of arrest anywhere in the United States, Charlotte's move to Boca Grande is far from scatterbrained; it also shows yet a further dimension of her maternal self-sacrifice.) The references to child-rearing, in addition to the book's central focus on Charlotte's rearing of Marin, range from the anthropologically primitive (Grace's “extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grosso”) to the radically modern:

… at Charlotte's table, an actress who had visited Hanoi spoke of the superior health and beauty of the children there.

“It's because they aren't raised by their mothers,” the actress said. “They don't have any of the bourgeois personal crap laid on them.”

Charlotte studied her wine glass. …

“No mama-papa-baby-nuclear-family bullshit,” the actress said. “It's beautiful.” …

“I know why you're crying,” the actress said after a while.

Implicit in some of Didion's baby imagery is her critique of an adult world that has lapsed backward toward infantile behavior. “More and more we have been hearing the wishful voices of … perpetual adolescents,” she writes in her critique, “The Women's Movement”; “how much cleaner to stay forever children.” Thus, in her novel, the political conspiracy in Boca Grande is led by a man named Bebe Chicago, while Marin's political aberration is strewn with reminders of her unformed adolescent condition: the orthodontal retainer that identifies her to the FBI; the impacted logic of the tape message; the fact that Marin's root motive appears to be her failure to get admitted (like her friend Lisa) to Stanford (“Marin cried when the letter came from Stanford”). And the book's theme of immature sexual conduct relates to the baby motif in Warren's outcry over oncoming impotence: “‘I can't get it up,’ Warren said when she tried to wake him. ‘Baby, baby, I can't get it up.’” Culturally, the “most offensive of the poets” at Charlotte's “evenings” exhibits a different kind of lapse from adult propriety in his “sequence of Mother-and-Child sonnets to present to the people of Cuba.” Finally, there is Charlotte's own reversion to childhood behavior as a reaction to Marin's disappearance: lying all day on Marin's bed and developing the persona that initially impresses Grace as comparable to a seven-year-old's.

But beyond these disparaging nuances in the baby motif lies a larger and opposite meaning: that dependence of every human creature, child and adult alike, on the care and fidelity of others, which makes their communal life a Book of Common Prayer. With respect to this theme, it is the relationship between Grace and Charlotte that proves, for Grace, radically transforming. At the beginning, Grace's persona evinces two paramount and—she comes to discover—related characteristics: (1) absolute independence, financially, politically, and, above all, emotionally (she has no delusions); and (2) a hollow woman condition (she has no center). Like Charlotte, she has “lost” her child, Gerardo, and has lost her husband, Edgar, but she has long since ceased to grieve over these losses—if she ever did grieve (“The morning Edgar died I called Victor, signed the papers, walked out to the Progreso as usual and ate lunch on the sea wall”). But this dead soul state, perhaps indicative of too long a stay in Boca Grande, gives way in the end to Grace's norteamericana mores, dormant for decades but now revitalized through her relationship to Charlotte. “For better or worse,” Ms. Didion says in “On Morality,” “we are what we learned as children.” Both Nick Carraway and Grace, by rediscovering the values of their respective midwestern and norteamericana upbringing, earn narrow escapes from the corruptions of a dangerously subversive alien society, Nick fleeing back West from “the rotten crowd” (though he had come “East, permanently, I thought”), Grace filling her center by taking care of Charlotte.

The gradual rekindling of maternal care in Grace is related to an increasing use of child imagery to portray Charlotte in the book's closing chapters. Merely childish in her earlier encounters with Grace—using words “as a seven-year-old might” at the Christmas party and wearing a “bébé dress” the night she seduces Gerardo—Charlotte becomes appealingly childlike as the nature of her “delusions” becomes clarified. Her work with the cholera vaccine, when exposed as a delusion, evokes in Grace a powerful surge of parental feeling:

I think I loved Charlotte in that moment as a parent loves the child who has just fallen from a bicycle, met a pervert, lost a prize, come up in any way against the hardness of the world.

I think I was also angry at her, again like a parent, furious that she hadn't known better. …

It is Charlotte's fatal delusion, however—her refusal to flee Boca Grande—that brings this rendering of the mother-child motif to its highest expression. The episode opens with Grace's vain efforts at persuasion—“‘Charlotte.’ I felt as if I were talking to a child. ‘I've told you before, there is trouble here. There is going to be more trouble. …’” It continues with the scene of Charlotte's farewell to Grace at the airport: “The last time I saw Charlotte alive … she pinned her gardenia on my dress … \and] dabbed her Grés perfume on my wrists. Like a child helping her mother dress for a party.” And it concludes, following Charlotte's overnight detention at the Escuela de los Ninos Perdidos (School for Lost Children), with Grace's rites for Charlotte's body—reminiscent of Nick's last fidelity to Gatsby—which conjoin the norteamericana motif with that of the child in the image of “a child's T-shirt … printed like an American flag” on Charlotte's coffin.

As the title implies, A Book of Common Prayer weaves its various motifs together—birth imagery, the mother and child motif, taking care of somebody—through reference to the central “delusion” of the Western world, the Christian faith. Though no longer an orthodox believer, Ms. Didion, who calls herself “quite religious in a certain way” (she was raised an Episcopalian), renders her final meaning by touching deeply into our Western religious consciousness, most notably in her greatly original and powerful manipulation of Christian symbolism. In the end, Charlotte's martyrdom evinces a Christlike effect, such that the passion of Charlotte Douglas, sexually considered, gives way to the Passion of Charlotte Douglas, a sacrificial scapegoat and testament to grace who (as Didion put it in an interview) “finds her life by leaving it.”

Our first indication of Charlotte's assignment to this Christ-like role is the happenstance that she first appears before Grace at a Christmas party, celebrating a holiday whose Spanish name—“Feliz Navidad,” Victor tells Grace—adds a double meaning to the book's birth imagery. Not only was this occasion the “birth” of her “child” Charlotte into Grace's life, it also presaged the Happy Birth (or rebirth) of Grace's own psyche, eventually rescued from its dead soul condition by the advent of this stranger on Christmas Eve. Among later echoes of the Gospel story, perhaps none is more poignant than the book's Communion symbolism, used in connection with those who are closest to Charlotte and betray her. Her brother Dickie, for example, fails to remember the burnt biscuits they had shared as children—this when Charlotte is deeply in need of this communal bond. And her betrayal by Marin evokes not only the eucharistic “body and blood” but also a touch of the lama sabachthani: “she \had] believed that when she walked through the valley of the shadow, she would be sustained by the taste of Marin's salt tears, her body and blood. The night Charlotte was interrogated … she cried not for God but for Marin.” And perhaps even her menstrual issue when the bomb goes off is a kind of female stigmata (“She remembers she bled”); her immolation, after all, relates directly to her being female, a “norteamericana cunt.”

Apropos of her name, Grace's own role is couched at last in terms of the Gospels. In an interview, Ms. Didion says “the whole thing was a prayer. You could say that this was Grace's prayer for Charlotte's soul.” Reinforcing that effect are not only the book's title and its paratactic, repetitive style, like that of the Bible or an Anglican litany, but also its use of the Gospel term, “witness.” Between the novel's opening statement, “I will be her witness,” and its terminal line, “I have not been the witness I wanted to be,” there transpires the change in Grace's personality—a religious conversion, in effect—that measures the efficacy of Charlotte's life and martyrdom. And perhaps the most crucial index of the change in Grace is something that her role as witness, chanting a prayer for Charlotte's soul, implies: her new attitude toward memory.

“This do ye … in remembrance of me.” These words in I Corinthians 11:25 clearly aim at preserving the Savior's sacrifice perpetually in human memory, which is just what the Christian Communion ritual has achieved for two millennia now. But as a Waste Land figure (before her “conversion”), Grace knows well the meaning of T. S. Eliot's warnings, in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” for example, or at the outset of The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month … mixing / Memory and desire.” She, too, prefers the “Winter kept us warm” attitude—“covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” Confirming Eliot's wisdom is the advice from Grace's aunt: “Dwelling on the past leads to unsoundness and dementia …Remember Lot's Wife, avoid the backward glance.” And, in less elegant phrasing, there is the corresponding advice of brother Dickie, just before the conversation about burnt biscuits:

“Listen,” Charlotte said finally. … “Dickie, I've been remembering some things since Marin left.”

“That's no good for you, Char, remembering. Remembering is shit. Forget her.”

But in the end Grace devotes both her life—as in the “Tivoli” episode with Marin—and her narrative to the remembrance of Charlotte. In so doing, she finds the answer to two problems of our age that, for lack of a “converted” or religious sensibility of some kind, appear nigh insuperable in twentieth-century literature. The first of these is alienation, the condition that leads her to describe herself as “‘de afuera,’ an outsider. I am de afuera. I have been de afuera all my life.” Even Warren Bogart, for all his social presumption, shares this malady: “He belonged to nothing. He was an outsider. … We were both de afuera, Warren Bogart and I. At the time I met him we were also both dying of cancer, Warren Bogart and I, which perhaps made us even more de afuera than usual. …” And Charlotte, despite her delusion that “Marin and I are inseparable,” is so “afflicted by what she called the ‘separateness’” that she telephones the California Highway Patrol just to hear (taped) voices. With sex proving a weak and evanescent bond at best, Charlotte's answer to this problem is Conradian—a total immersion in her work in Boca Grande that, though a delusion, evokes some of Conrad's finest sentences: “From the hard work of men \is] born the sympathetic consciousness of a common destiny. … For the great mass of mankind the only saving grace that is needed is steady fidelity to what is nearest at hand and heart in the short moment of each human effort.” For Grace, the answer to the de afuera state is finally her life of Common Prayer, her sense of her bond or communion that makes her “more like Charlotte than I thought I was.”

The other great problem of our age—like alienation, it was once called an existential problem—is that of coping with mortality. Initially, Grace and Charlotte represent polar opposites of experience and innocence with respect to the Burial of the Dead. Grace, who lost her mother at age eight and her father at age ten, attained her freedom from delusion as a result of the latter bereavement (“I have been for fifty of my sixty years a student of delusion”). Without delusions, she has used her emotional independence as a stay against death, avoiding the backward glance as she does when her husband dies: “Unlike Charlotte, I learned early to keep death in my line of sight, keep it under surveillance, keep it on cleared ground and away from any brush where it might coil unnoticed. The morning Edgar died I … walked out to the Progreso as usual and ate lunch on the sea wall.” Charlotte, by contrast, follows the norteamericana pattern of denial or suppression concerning awareness of mortality. She refuses to submit to Leonard's and Grace's assertions that Warren is dying (“He is not dying”), and she evades other intimations of mortality—including reminders of her parents' deaths—until the moment her lawyer recommends “declaring your daughter legally dead,” whereupon Charlotte tears up the stock certificates that would thus have become cash-worthy. Now at last Charlotte realizes that “People did die … and she had been too busy to notice,” an acknowledgment that prompts a momentary feeling of superiority in Charlotte's witness: “When I think of Charlotte Douglas apprehending death at the age of thirty-nine in the safe-deposit vault of a bank of San Franciso it occurs to me that there was some advantage in having a mother who died when I was eight, a father who died when I was ten, before I was busy.”

But here Grace herself is wrong. Though aware of mortality, she has not found a meaningful way of coping with it, as is evident in her inability to deal with fear of the dark. “Fear of the dark exists irrelative to patterns of child-rearing in the Mato Grosso or Denver, Colorado,” she observes, referring to her own North American habitat in childhood—an admission that, combined with her extravagant love for the light in Boca Grande (“I continue to live here only because I love the light”), indicates an angst beyond assuagement by her usual practice of emotional detachment. Because it is beyond assuagement, Grace commits her nearest approximation of self-delusion at this point, knowing very well the irrelevance (however clinically correct it may be) of her biochemical analysis: “Fear of the dark is an arrangement of fifteen amino acids. Fear of the dark is a protein.” Once again, by way of effecting the “conversion” of Grace to a new sensibility, it is Warren Bogart who formulates the truth to live by (he had done similar duty for “take care of somebody”), and it is Charlotte Douglas who verifies the truth in act and deed.

As the pioneering figure for the theme of mortality—the first main character to die—Warren proclaims the subject at Morgan Fayard's party with his typical truth-teller's forcefulness: “‘You're all dying. You're dying, your wife and sister are dying, your little children are dying, Chrissie here is dying, even Miss Tabor there is dying. … But not one of you is dying as fast as I'm dying.’ Warren Bogart smiled.” To cope with this fact, Warren turns not to Grace's biochemical science but to passion (his sexual odyssey) and poetry. Although used in a partly satiric context, the poetry Warren selects is greatly moving and relevant in light of his own terminal illness: Tennyson's “Crossing the Bar,” Bryant's “Thanatopsis,” Pope's “that long disease, my life,” W. H. Auden's “Time and fevers / Burn away / And the grave proves the child ephemeral.” In the end, Grace proves the efficacy of Warren's example by abandoning her protein molecule in favor of poetry: “Sand-strewn caverns cool and deep / Where the winds are all asleep. … I will sit in the dark reciting Matthew Arnold as usual.” And, reversing her earlier judgment that “Also, for the record, Charlotte was afraid of the dark,” Grace concludes her narrative with the image of Charlotte striding briskly through the dark the night she died: “All I know now is that when I think of Charlotte Douglas walking in the hot night wind toward the lights at the Capilla del Mar, I am less and less certain that this story has been one of delusion. Unless the delusion was mine.”

Grace's discovery that “I have not been the witness I wanted to be” recalls the conversion motif affecting previous witnesses in American literature such as Jack Burden, Nick Carraway, and Lambert Strether. But Joan Didion's use of that tradition gains extra power from its apocalyptic setting, her analogue to Yeats's line, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The anarchy in A Book of Common Prayer ranges from the political (the guerrilleros in Boca Grande, terrorism in the United States) to the moral (Charlotte's norteamericana ideals are delusions) to—perhaps most important—the religious (the night Charlotte died, she cried not for God but for Marin). And for Didion the anarchy seems ubiquitous and final: unlike Eliot, she poses no Anglican sanctuary from chaos; unlike Pound, she eschews the State as a conceivable refuge; unlike Fitzgerald, she has no friendly, stable middle West waiting back there to receive the lost child who has learned his lesson. (That lesson, Nick's discovery that “They're a rotten crowd,” has its analogue in Charlotte's “Goddamn you all”).

But Yeats, who posed the issue of the collapsing center, also went furthest to resolve it. In “Two Songs from a Play,” Yeats acknowledges the mutability of all centers—including civilization-sustaining centers like Christ and Dionysus—but as against this “darkening thought” he ascribes to mankind an eternal flame of spiritual creativity: “Whatever flames upon the night / Man's own resinous heart has fed.” That Yeatsian flame is exactly what Grace comes to see in Charlotte Douglas. She sees, moreover, that, delusory or not, it sheds the only light men have ever had, comprising their “perilous triumph of being over nothingness” (to quote one of Didion's essays), their taking up arms against “that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate” (to quote another).

In portraying this theme, Joan Didion thereby subjects “The Second Coming” to a significant correction. Although it may be true that in her book “the worst are full of passionate intensity,” the novel belies Yeats's assertion that “The best lack all conviction.” Isolated from her text, Joan Didion's central convictions—“take care of somebody,” “keeping promises matters,” “Loyalties to those we love”—may seem hackneyed or banal, but in context they are no more so than Henry James's “Take hold of something,” Conrad's “idea of Fidelity,” or Fitzgerald's “there is literally no standard in life other than a sense of duty.” Further, although written in a mood of elegy, like Updike's tribute to “the Protestant kind of goodness going down with all the guns firing” in The Centaur, Ms. Didion's novel captures something of Updike's hope—“Only goodness lives. But it does live”—in her motif of the witness transmitting the flame or the memory into a morally darkening era.

In writing from these deep-seated convictions, Joan Didion clearly links herself to a major tradition in American fiction. But to say that she displays important affinities with these other artists is not at all to say that Ms. Didion is merely imitative or derivative. In fact, her fiction maintains T. S. Eliot's classic balance between tradition and individual talent. With respect to the artistic rendering of her moral vision, her mastery of fictional elements like style, mood, characterization, narrative design, setting, and imagery, Ms. Didion is very much her own person, an original talent. “I think … a novel is nothing if it is not the expression of an individual voice, of a single view of experience,” she says, “—and how many good or even interesting novels, of the thousands published, appear each year?” At the time this analysis is being completed, A Book of Common Prayer has lived barely two years within the public domain, hardly time enough to acquire a substantial readership, let alone ascend to permanent glory. Nonetheless, on the basis of its significant moral vision, its enviable artistic power, and—behind all else—its penetrating intelligence, A Book of Common Prayer easily transcends Ms. Didion's “good or even interesting” category and approaches the category of a great reading experience. It may, and I believe should, become one of the landmark novels of the decade.

Principal Works

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Run River (novel) 1963

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays) 1968

Play It As It Lays (novel) 1970

A Book of Common Prayer (novel) 1977

The White Album (essays) 1979

Salvador (nonfiction) 1983

Democracy (novel) 1984

Miami (nonfiction) 1987

After Henry (essays) 1992

The Last Thing He Wanted (novel) 1996

Leonel Gómez Videz (review date 6 June 1983)

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SOURCE: “Dreamwork,” in New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 22, June 6, 1983, pp. 33-36.

[In the following review, Videz finds Salvador a less than illuminating study of conditions in El Salvador.]

In the aftermath of President Reagan's recent address to the Joint Session of Congress and in light of ongoing congressional deliberations, the American people need to understand El Salvador. Joan Didion's book \Salvador] should have helped. It does not.

Last June Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, traveled to El Salvador for two weeks, and spoke with various local and American officials. After this “fortnight of living dangerously” (The Washington Post), she spent four months working on a book praised on its jacket as “an incredible portrait of the true meaning of terror, fear and political repression.” The copywriter's claim is echoed several times by Didion herself, who believes that in those two weeks she came “to understand the exact mechanism of terror.” (She comes to this epiphany during a nonevent: she is setting on a restaurant porch, watching a gunman standing near a gas pump as a car goes by.)

Reviewers have suggested that Didion's subject is terror itself, her own, and conceivably the terror that any American would feel during a two-week vacation in hell. Didion brings to Salvador her gift for precise observation, and the book deserves praise for its haunting evocation of mood. To achieve this mood, however, she mystifies her subject, believing that her failure to understand means that El Salvador cannot be understood.

“. … The visitor to Salvador learns immediately to concentrate, to the exclusion of past or future concerns, as in a prolonged amnesiac fugue.” She finds “no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.” When she learns that a local commandante thought some foreign missionaries were French, rather than Irish, because they were called “Franciscan,” she decides that “This was one of those occasional windows that open onto the heart of El Salvador and then close, a glimpse of the impenetrable interior.” This echoes the work's opening epigraph from Conrad. But these periodic pronouncements upon El Salvador's unyielding mystery betray her subject.

“Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador,” she claims, “perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite.” On another occasion she suggests that “In the absence of information (and the presence, often, of disinformation) even the most apparently straightforward event takes on, in El Salvador, elusive shadows, like a fragment of retrieved legend.” Amnesiac fugue? Legend? This might provide Americans with a poetic reading of our circumstances, but it is an approach that neither we Salvadorans nor Americans can afford.

Ms. Didion's terminal vagueness omits any reference to the system of corruption endemic to the military government—an essential fact of politics in El Salvador of which Americans should be more aware. One example of this corruption, close to home, was the 1976 arrest of the Salvadoran chief of the armed forces in Mt. Kisco, New York, as he attempted to sell ten thousand machine guns to men he assumed were members of organized crime, but were in fact Mt. Kisco's local police. Didion alludes several times to the January 1981 murder of two American labor advisers, Mark Pearlman and Michael Hammer, and that of Salvador's Agrarian Reform Agency President, José Rodolfo Viera, but fails to mention that Viera had been on a death list for months, a result of his televised attempt to expose the theft of $40 million by the previous (military) administrators of that agency. “Terror is the given of the place,” says Didion. It has no cause.

Nor, in her reading, do numbers—whether of dollars or of lives—have meaning.

All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the use of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador, a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally. …

She makes this point in connection with voter estimates in the March 1982 elections, and the difficulty of determining the extent of capital flight over the past ten years. The discrepancy between estimates leads Didion to her helpless conclusion—in effect it is a surrender to the convenient smokescreen masking the reality, which is that the nearly one billion dollars in U.S. aid sent to Salvador since 1980 has, as one American Senator put it, “disappeared down the rat-hole.” Did the $40 million that Viera found missing simply evaporate? Such questions are never asked. Nor does Didion ever pause in her litany of deaths to consider the causes of any of the murders.

What she provides is a horrific description of atrocity: “The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie,” and

In El Salvador one learns that vultures go first for the soft tissue; for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth. One learns that an open mouth can be used to make a specific point, can be stuffed with something emblematic; stuffed, say, with a penis, or, if the point has to do with a land title, stuffed with some of the dirt in question.

What point is Didion making? Such lurid details make for compelling prose, but in the absence of any analysis of why such murders occur, they seem at best to bolster her thesis of mindless terror and at worst to suggest a penchant for gratuitous special effects.

Any understanding of why the Salvadoran government might be opposed must be preceded by an understanding of its nature. Didion quotes Thomas O. Enders, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs: “Perhaps the most striking measure of progress \in El Salvador] is the transformation of the military from an institution dedicated to the status quo to one that spearheads land reform and supports constitutional democracy.” She then undercuts him by claiming that former Minister of Defense García “understood the importance to Americans of symbolic action: letting the Americans have their land reform program,” which she later refers to as “less a ‘reform’ than an exercise in public relations,” and promoting the illusion that the new civilian president Alvaro Magaña “was in fact commander-in-chief of the armed forces.” Thus she narrowly misses an opportunity to scrutinize those armed forces, and perhaps ask the obvious (and still unasked) question: why are those armed forces fighting? What is in it for them?

Young men enter the Salvadoran officer corps to acquire the power and money that military service provides, through its systemic opportunities for corruption. Seven hundred officers in the military lead the Salvadoran army, national guard, national police, and treasury police; most of them attended the El Salvador Military School. Each officer belongs to a tanda (graduating class) and each tanda has a president. During their thirty-year careers, the officers seek contacts and form alliances with other tandas, as they prepare for political power. In past elections in El Salvador, no matter which party had the most votes, the army candidate won. The outgoing president would choose his successor, and together they would assemble a coalition of officers from one major tanda and several allied tandas to enjoy the spoils of their five-term. The tanda system remains in power today.

Didion reveals her ignorance of this structure when she calls former Defense Minister García “a survivor” for lasting in office since 1979. García was never a survivor. That is, it was not through his own powers that he enjoyed his tenure (now over) with the military; it was at the pleasure of the military itself.

As for the civilian president's influence with that institution, Didion tellingly recounts a conversation with Alvaro Magaña. Magaña describes for her his conversations with Roberto D'Abuisson, a figure whom some have accused, although there has been no trial, of being involved in the death in March 1980 of Monsignor Oscar Romero (Didion makes no mention of this): “When we're alone now I try to talk to him. I do talk to him, he's coming for lunch today. He never calls me Alvaro, it's always usted,Señor,Doctor. I call him Roberto. I say, Roberto, Don't do this, Don't do that, you know.” In light of American failures to get that government to prosecute those responsible for American deaths, one wonders about the extent of American influence as well. Didion, however, does not seem to wonder.

Progress toward these prosecutions was a congressional condition of U.S. military aid in 1982. Despite three reports that certified progress, the trials of the murderers of the nuns and the labor advisers remain in limbo. By now, one would think that Congress would be asking why. But Congress is not asking why or attempting to understand the logic of the Salvadoran military, which requires that it protect its own.

Just seven weeks ago, it seemed that Congress was ready to require as a condition for military aid that the government enter into unconditional negotiations with the Salvadoran opposition, i.e. the guerrillas. Congress seemed to have finally grasped that a solution to the Salvadoran problem required that the opposition be recognized as legal and legitimate and must, in a transition period leading to elections, share power with the military.

Negotiations leading to power sharing is a strategy not without risk. But the risks are hard to define. One can look at the history of coalition governments and view guerrilla participation as a trojan horse leading to guerrilla control. And there is an understandable fear that, once in power, the guerrillas could turn out to be as brutal as the army. Risky though it is, the participation of the left is necessary to create a force strong enough within the Salvadoran government to purge the corrupt and murderous elements within the officer corps. Two administrations have failed to be that force for human rights. But at this writing, after the President's speech, Congress seems confused, perceiving nothing “so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.”

The debate over military aid in the House in April was characterized above all by vacillation. In the end, the House Foreign Affairs Committee fashioned a compromise, making “effective control” of the military and the termination of murder and torture an objective of U.S. policy, rather than a condition of military aid as Congressman Stephen Solarz had proposed in his amendment, passed by the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee on April 12. Negotiations, which Solarz also drafted into his amendment, were retained as the one legally binding condition. Not one member of the committee, however, was willing to declare “power-sharing” as the proper and necessary outcome of a negotiation. And finally the committee increased military aid by $38.6 million, thus undercutting a clear signal to the Salvadoran Army that it was serious.

One can reasonably expect that as the foreign aid bill makes its way through the legislative process, the fear of taking responsibility will increase and, in the end, Congress will strike the negotiations clause drafted by Solarz. Unconditional negotiations will become an objective. The law will give Congress a chance every six months to block the next installment by concurrent resolution. But as the foreign policy leadership of the Congress well knows, Congress has not once voted to stop aid by that procedure. So every six months, the situation will mirror Didion's portrayal of it: fluid, mysterious, impenetrable. A Heart of Darkness.

The Congress, for its part, relies on the information provided by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, which last September released its report, U.S. Intelligence Performance in Central America: Achievements and Selected Instances of Concern. Didion also has mined this report noting that she was “struck … by the suggestion in the report … that the intelligence was itself a dreamwork, tending to support policy, the report read, ‘rather than inform it,’ providing ‘reinforcement more than illumination,’ ‘ammunition’ rather than analysis.” Unfortunately, that characterization also fits Didion's Salvador.

Rodney Simard (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “The Dissociation of Self in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays,” in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, edited by Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Schapiro, 1986, pp. 273-87.

[In the following essay, Simard presents a psychoanalytical evaluation of Didion's novel Play It As It Lays.]

Although Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) is unquestionably a study of the modern malaise and an exploration of the futility of existence in a crumbling and decadent society, one must be careful not to assume that Maria Wyeth is an existential Everyman. She is a victim of absurdity, but hers is a very specialized case; she is an intelligent and sensitive woman, a type of human being who is quickly aware of the complexities and metaphysics of ordinary existence. Moreover, her victimization is not due to society, but to herself. She is primarily the victim of her own ego weakness and her suffering is largely self-inflicted; she is, in terms of contemporary psychoanalytic practice, a narcissistic personality. She has so objectified everything around her that she reacts reductively, comprehending the general nature of the people and events of her life, but not their individuality and uniqueness. Everything she encounters she deals with as if it were an archetype, dismissing its “otherness,” its existence as an entity independent of her for significance. The trappings of her life and the people she is surrounded by are self-objects, props she experiences as part of herself. Her disintegration in the novel finally reaches the point where she reduces herself to a mere concept, a point where she does not exist even for herself.

In Maria's defense, her environment provides her with few reference points for healthy, integrated existence, a condition which augments her descent into “nothingness.” Play It As It Lays clearly belongs to the subgenre of Hollywood novels, and as such, the world it portrays is governed by the metaphor of the cinematic image: romantic illusion in surface representations with an almost total devaluation of integrity, depth, and substance. Maria is an actress, surrounded by film people and their retinues. In this illusory setting, the people who form the cast of the metaphoric movie of her life are themselves all vacuous narcissists, solely concerned with their individual roles. Maria's challenge in this world is to function as wife and mother, a role dictated to her by her director-husband, Carter, but due to her lack of a sense of self, she founders in these roles. By extension, her problem becomes one of direction and control: lacking a formal “director,” she lacks control, both internal, or subjective, and external, or objective. Unscripted, her life becomes a paradigm of aimlessness.

In structure as well, the novel is suggestive of a screenplay, a juxtaposition of brief scenes that often end in a static tableau. Four “camera-views” are involved in the novel's 87 scenes, beginning with the longest, a first-person account in the voice of Maria after she has survived the events of the main narrative. Two brief narratives are next presented by Helene, ostensibly her best friend, and by Carter, in which the reader is invited to contrast the position of the institutionalized protagonist with the supposedly healthy people who had been closest to her. By their contrast, these opening scenes reveal Maria coming to grips with a new awareness of self, beginning a positive reassessment of her life, while her supporting cast evinces only bitterness and unaffected narcissism. The first 67 scenes of the body of the novel retrace the previous year of her life and chronicle the events that led to Maria's breakdown, presented in third-person narration. With scene 68, the voice of Maria that opens the novel reemerges, continuing in seven interspersed scenes to close the narrative in scene 84, completing the circularity of the novel in the symbol of her new objective—to live in the present, to “watch the hummingbird.

The principal events in her life begin in the action antecedent to the autumnal, infernal atmosphere of scene 1. Raised in the desert village of Silver Wells, Nevada (now part of a military installation), Maria fled her gambling father and her frustrated mother to become a model in New York. Dominated there by her lover, Ivan Costello, she had a breakdown when she learned of her mother's death, a probable suicide in an automobile on a lonely stretch of desert highway. Guilty at not having responded to her mother's depression at their last meeting, she wanders New York until she meets and marries Carter, who gains his reputation by filming Maria, a docudrama of her life. Transplanted to California, Maria has a child, Kate, who is born retarded, the victim of “an aberrant chemical in her brain.” Apparently at Carter's insistence, Kate is institutionalized and the marriage begins to fragment along lines parallel with Maria's personal disintegration.

The main narrative of the novel opens in September, after the summer of her separation from Carter, and Maria is again pregnant. However, she is unsure of the father, who may be either Carter or Les Goodwin, a screenwriter with whom she has apparently had a brief affair. The novel then elliptically describes her abortion (at Carter's direction), her divorce, and the fragmentation that results in her confinement in a clinic.

In treatment, Maria announces that “from my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently,” and what the novel explores is the failure of her belief in cause and effect relationships, her faith in purpose. She is a woman who wanted to believe in reward and punishment, in an external controlling factor to her life that would be both predictable and just. But when confronted with her mother's suicide, Kate's retardation, and her pregnancy, she begins to realize—if not to understand—that the external plan in which she had placed her faith has failed. But Maria is not so much a character suddenly cast adrift in a chaotic world as she is a woman who resents a world that she realizes has no inherent meaning. Her tone is less despair than resentment, for she seems to assume that there should be a pattern of order and that she is being deprived of a natural right. She assumes, because she holds no system of belief, that the systems of all the people she encounters must be false and that others are deluding themselves; only she is aware of absurdity and it is her special province, her private pain. Didion constantly juxtaposes her against others who suffer their own kinds of despair, such as “the thin beautiful girl with the pelvic abscess,” but Maria feels no sense of camaraderie, and, in fact, tries to avoid her fellow humans. Her only companion in despair is BZ, Helene's homosexual husband, but she refuses to grant even to him her stature of seriousness and shows him little true compassion. Again to Maria's credit, however, BZ is hardly a worthy candidate for her empathy. In his narcissistic glee at having discovered the “nothingness” of his own life, he is often sadistic in taunting her with the emptiness she feels, but she is quick to dismiss his life with, “I'm sick of everybody's sick arrangements.”

This sort of reductive intellectual snobbery, or “narcissistic homeostasis,” is characteristic of her relationship with BZ. On their first meeting, he is intensely attracted to her, presumably intellectually because of his sexual orientation and his topics of conversation. His interest in her is genuine, and he is drawn to her because he senses an emotional companion for his despair; however, she has little more than tolerance for him. He believes he knows her griefs, and probably does, but never realizes that her passivity and lack of control have thrown her into isolation and are the source of the depth of her indifference to him. He tells her, “You're getting there,” but she must ask where, to which he responds, “Where I am.” His condescension sparks her need to feel differently, to reject despair; nonetheless, her reply is the emptiness of a truncated chapter. While she feels her own pain intensely, she cannot empathize with such intensity of feeling in others, which is most clear in the episode of BZ's suicide. He tells her, albeit elliptically, that he plans to overdose, and her comment is a flippant, “That's a queen's way of doing it.” With their knowledge of Helene's affair with Carter, their bond has a renewed immediacy. When she asks why he came to her, he says, “Because you and I, we know something. Because we've been out there where nothing is. Because I wanted—you know why.” Maria replies, “Just go to sleep,” and even after she realizes that he has taken the pills, she does nothing. This is the behavior of an anesthetized sensibility; it is the apathy of the narcissistic personality.

Maria's empathic reaction to BZ's suicide, if not to BZ himself, is the culmination of another form of death-wish that permeates the novel: her highway driving. In an attempt to superimpose a purpose on her life, an artificial sense of direction, she begins the novel with ritualized driving on freeways. Heinz Kohut observes that the narcissistic personality, “sensing the rapid and dangerously increasing fragmentation of the self which precedes the overt outbreak of the psychosis, attempts to counteract it by frantic activity.” Sensing her own fragmentation in the month following her separation from Carter, Maria attempts to create form from her chaos: “to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril.” Only when she realizes that her driving is a manifestation of her attempts to get back to Carter does she abandon it; “after that Maria did not go back to the freeway except as a way of getting somewhere.”

Representative of the automobile culture to which Maria belongs and suggestive of her role as a traveler and questor, driving also has other implications in the novel. Delighted in her ability to negotiate difficult and dangerous maneuvers behind the wheel, Maria is obviously manifesting an overt form of a death-wish, but she may be signaling an even deeper subconscious desire for destruction. Guilty at having failed to respond to her mother's self-destructive signals, her driving might represent a desire for a reunion with the mother, since her mother's suicide was in an automobile. In her attempt to alleviate her own guilt at her treatment of her mother, Maria overcompensates in her reactions to Kate, self-deceptively believing that the child is capable of functioning in and completing Maria's idealized notion of domesticity. She attempts to bury her feelings for her mother in her attentions toward her child, but she can only feel frustration and generate more guilt in herself: vainly attempting to believe in cause and effect relationships, she seeks justification for having been punished with the child's affliction. Only at the end, in treatment, does she begin simply to accept Kate for what she is and begin to unburden herself of her double sense of maternal guilt.

In her other relationships, although few candidates are worthy, Maria never admits the possibility of finding security or meaning in friendship, and she dismisses everyone who does not offer to complete a conventionally romantic scenario. Her affair with Les Goodwin seems to have been tentative in the past, but the idea of an idealized relationship attracts her. She arranges an assignation in Oxnard (ironically prosaic as a setting) and busies herself with the usual trappings of illicit behavior. But the incident holds no romance and is a failure. She tries to resume the exaggerated role of Ivan Costello's lover because of the artificial security she remembers, only to be disillusioned by the ugly reality and the pathetic silliness of the pose. But without voicing her feelings, Maria seems to feel that the men have somehow failed her, without recognizing the burden her distorted idealization has placed on them. Her romantic grasping is in sharp contrast to the reality they offer; her impetuous calls meet with what she realistically should expect: to “Take me somewhere,” Goodwin replies, “You got a map of Peru?,” and Costello asks, “You want to know what I think of your life?”

Her abandoned attempts at achieving a romantic state are perfectly understandable in the context of her accelerating disillusionment, but she cannot be excused for the opacity of her escapism. Twice she tries to choreograph the same situation, twice fails, and twice flees the failure rather than admit defeat. Her romantic concept of herself as validated by being another's lover is still intact; she gains no insight into herself from these experiences.

Her attempt to reconstruct her affair with Costello also suggests another of Maria's romantic self-indulgences: a retreat from the present and a reconstruction of the past, for as she admits while in treatment, “I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.” (In fact, her treatment seems to require her to deal with this, for as she begins her history, she says, “So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth.” Indicating a positive reassessment, she begins with an assertion of self.) In times of stress, she dwells on the experiences, or rather, sensations, of her childhood. These attempts at achieving a naïve simplicity and sense of order collapse, however, when she realizes she was not even aware of her mother's death and that she is the only one who remembers, much less values, the details of her home life. She rejects Benny Austin, an old friend of the family, because he reminds her of the illusory nature of her escapist memories, and when she guiltily realizes she has probably hurt him, she tries to repent. But even here she fails, for characteristically, her information is wrong and he is lost to her. Again, Maria simply moves on.

Because she offers nothing of herself to people, Maria receives nothing, cultivating emptiness as a defense. Because of her inability to see other people as individuals, Maria feels no need to share her life, feelings, or behavior. These elements combine to underscore the reader's perception of her isolation and how much of it is self-imposed. The most outstanding quality of this retreat is its tone of superiority, an intellectual egotism that superficially scans, classifies, and dismisses anything Maria feels is “not-I.” For example, when racked with guilt over her abortion and looking for comfort, Maria recalls an abortion story told to her by a fellow model, whom she names only incidentally. She dismisses the story, however, for she finds no possible connection between the two of them: “In the end it was just a New York story,” foreign and unrelated to her. Likewise, Maria buys huge quantities of unneeded food to avoid seeming to be one of “them”: young, single women in circumstances identical to hers. In attempting to validate her individuality, she refuses to accept who she really is; to defend against emptiness, she becomes grandiose: her perceptions must be superior to everyone else's, and she belongs to no one or no group. She voyeuristically participates in parties and gatherings, watching others involved in a spectrum of emotional response, never extending herself, resenting their presence on the stage of her life, and barely suppressing the nausea she continually feels in the presence of others. The slightest human contact, if it holds any promise for self-revelation, sends her retreating to the bathroom with dry heaves. To remain cohesive, she must affect a stance of distinct superiority—her perceptions are more delicate, her emotions more valid, and her life more important.

Manifesting what Freud calls “the narcissism of minor differences,” or the inability to recognize sameness in those one is closest to, Maria is bored and unempathetic with the small fragmentations of Helene, with whom she maintains a superficially close relationship. When Helene shows a rare crack in her polished facade, using the absence of her hairdresser, Leonard, as a tangible symbol for her own despair, Maria makes only a languid gesture toward soothing her before the vacuum of another chapter ending again signals Maria's lack of response, her inability to empathize. If Maria realizes that Helene's reaction to Leonard's absence is very little different from her own neurotic fixation on plumbing, she fails to indicate that perception.

The level of repression evident in Helene's fragmentation, representative of a partially conscious awareness of the lack of a virile man in her life and her compromised marriage of convenience, parallels Maria's repressed feelings about her abortion. Aware of the bland domesticity of the house in Encino where she has the operation, Maria comes to associate the doctor's flushing of her fetus with all plumbing and begins to have nightmares about stopped up pipes. When the sink backs up in her Beverly Hills home, she makes a futile attempt to regain the control over herself that she sacrificed in passively allowing the operation by moving to a furnished apartment on Fountain Avenue. She tries to assuage her guilt by turning toward Kate; self-deluded, but with genuine emotion, she fails miserably in trying to stage a conventional Christmas dinner with the Goodwins. Attempting to recreate herself in the apartment, rejecting her immediate past, she becomes obsessed with “the peril, the unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” But this denial of reality is also a failure, for one morning, she thinks the shower is slow to drain and her repressed guilt overwhelms her. She returns to Beverly Hills, aware that “There would be plumbing anywhere she went”; she knows she cannot escape her guilt through pretense and simple flight.

As with Maria's addresses, Didion's selection of physical details signals the superficiality and isolation of her central character: the scene is Hollywood, the milieu is the movies, and Maria is a professional poseur. She is trained in role-playing, in containing and masking expression of the true self, and the aesthetic distance she employs in her work is also the substance of her private life. Kernberg observes that:

highly intelligent patients … may appear as quite creative in their fields: narcissistic personalities can often be found as … outstanding performers in some artistic domain. Careful observation, however, of their productivity over a long period of time will give evidence of superficiality and flightiness in their work, of a lack of depth which eventually reveals the emptiness behind the glitter. Quite frequently these are the “promising” geniuses who then surprise other people by the banality of their development.

In her profession, Maria manifests the grandiosity of her false self, but in the course of the novel, the promise she once held dissipates. She works only once, on a television segment of Interstate80, and performs only adequately. Although she wants to believe in the validity of work, even her professional self is beginning to fade; she begins to lose yet another self by which she can identify herself, although she still wants to believe herself to be an actress.

In this setting, stereotypical for its superficiality, Maria allows herself to be sucked into ritual action and response, as if following a script, jealously guarding self from what she feels would be exposure. That she refuses to acknowledge the substance of the society and values that surround her, including the people closest to her, comes as no surprise in these circumstances, but her seemingly conscious relegation of herself to the same level is surprising, especially since she is aware of the narcissistic superficiality of her environment. Only when she relaxes her pose is she aware that she is “watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing.”

To her, Carter is no more than “husband,” even though she feels an emotional longing that defies such a categorization. He cannot emerge as a vital human being to her (perhaps largely due to his own inadequacy, as revealed in his opening section), but remains what his role dictates. She objectifies and abstracts him to the degree that they cannot have conversations, even about the things she feels most deeply; she enacts internal scenes that have prescribed dialogue. Before her penultimate resignation, when she meets Carter in the desert, Maria is fully aware, if somewhat opaquely, of the nature of their relationship, even if she tries not to understand it. When she first contemplates going to him, she kills the desire by experiencing what she knows would happen:

Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion. “Oh Christ,” he would say, “I felt good today, really good for a change, you fixed that, you really pricked the balloon.”

“How did I fix that.”

“You know how.”

“I don't know how.”

The incident would end by her trying to “shake him out of what she could not see as other than an elaborate pose,” their meeting would degenerate into unattractive and noncommunicative posing on both their parts, and the encounter never even takes place. Maria is aware, at least, of the formulaic quality of their interaction but somehow still feels compelled to act her part passively, afraid to step out of character and be herself.

Her full awareness of the duality of her perceptions of their relationship is displayed when she does encounter Carter for the first time in the novel. She tries to define the nature of their marriage, for Maria is fond of facile labels, and as she begins to speak, she is suddenly aware that: “Something real was happening: This was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.” Here she self-consciously adopts a role, knowing that it is destructive to an important aspect of her existence, fully assured of her ability to hide her real emotions. Knowing that prescribed behavior will result in actions and words contrary to her desires, she yet assumes a character and they quickly alienate each other. “Anesthetized,” she is unable even to cry at her emotional betrayal of herself.

By the time she confronts Carter with her pregnancy, she has so objectified him that she can only deal with herself in the same terms. After she tells him, “it came to her that in the scenario of her life this would be what was called an obligatory scene, and she wondered with distant interest just how long the scene would play.” Here, she has completely removed herself from the situation; she seems no longer to have any conception of her own self as she goes through the motions of living her life. Maria, as Carter's wife, is a character with a script, an abstract quality in the realm of “not-I.”

That evening, while recalling former friends as merely a set of facts, she thinks back on Carter's reactions to her announcement: “Maria tried very hard to keep thinking of Carter in this light, Carter as a dropper of friends and names and obligations, because if she thought of Carter as he was tonight she would begin to cry again.” In this situation, characteristically, her true self begins to emerge and she thrusts off any attempts it might make to impinge on the facade of self she has constructed. She is too afraid to let her feelings come forward, afraid that the process would stir emotions which would complicate the vision of simplicity she has created for order. In her admission to him that she is unsure of the father of her unborn child, Maria makes Carter vulnerable and fears this vulnerability and her own power to create it:

She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled.

Maria makes her encounters with Carter fail because she wants them to, because any attempt to deal with her immediate situation would threaten the surety of her internalized scenarios. Failure is predictable and safely handled; her repertory for her wife role embraces many easily adopted reactions. Unthinking acting allows her to feel order and meaning, however negative. Such behavior and thinking are obviously self-destructive. They are easy, require no effort for a skilled actress, and provide no obstacles, do not threaten to require her to think, feel, or reveal herself; thus, by passively accepting the role of guilty party, she risks no possibility of exposure and finds a convoluted and false security in knowing she cannot be harmed or rejected while vulnerable. As Kohut observes, narcissists self-impose isolation because of “their inability to love,” and they are “motivated by their conviction that they will be treated unempathically, coldly, or with hostility.”

Her one touchstone to what she thinks is her inner reality is Kate. But in the year before her treatment, her faith in her child as a salvation is as arbitrary as her list of things she spontaneously decides she will never do. Her concept of the child denies the reality of Kate's retardation, and her thoughts about Kate and her own behavior toward her are self-indulgent. Maria believes what she wants and ignores the unpleasant. When Carter mentions the disruptive effect of her excessive visits on Kate's adjustment, Maria obliquely asks, “Adjustment to what?” Similarly, her visits to the institution are attempts at actualizing fantasy and have far more to do with the mother's reassurance of herself than with the child's welfare. Significantly, Maria imagines the child most strongly when indulging in self-pity or romantic reverie; her fantasies of home life with Kate include both Goodwin and Costello. Kate is a concept to Maria, a self-object, someone Maria needs to complete herself—even though her affection for her daughter is undoubtedly authentic, if misguided.

The central issue of Maria's unborn child and abortion functions to allow the reader to view her when she is most vulnerable. Her feelings about what she had done are closely associated with the emotions she has for her mother and Kate. She tries to objectify the unborn child and deal with it as an abstract concept, but she cannot, for despite her efforts, she is very much involved in what she does. For the first time, she cannot call up her grandiosity to protect herself; she cannot separate herself from her actions because the abortion is a symbolic killing of her own unborn true self.

Despite her wishes to the contrary, Maria cannot deal with this particular aspect of her life effectively; she is haunted by plumbing, the symbolic representation of her guilt, death, and her concept of the living child, Kate, becomes increasingly unreal. At one critical point in the narrative, the reader is allowed to view Maria absolutely nakedly, and that occasion corresponds to a day symbolic to her, the day her aborted child would have been born. While driving, she pulls to the curb:

she … put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because something had just come through to her, there in the sun on the Western street. …

She is flooded and overwhelmed by images she has repressed, and one can finally see Maria completely exposed, not only to the reader, but to herself as well. But again, the experience does not seem to be constructive at this point and it offers her no genuine stability; her self-esteem plummets and she begins a ritual of self-abuse and degradation that includes such actions as lead to her pathetic encounters with Larry Kulik and Johnny Waters.

The breakdown incident indicates the duality of Maria's reactions and the complexity of her repression. The invulnerable facade she has constructed allows no such immediacy—these things are the “not-I”—but these things are obviously central to what the reader recognizes as the real Maria. Her behavior in the novel, including the thoughts the reader is allowed to see, is artificial and belongs to the character Maria is trying to convince herself she is. But clearly, Maria also has another level of reaction, one which embraces the people and emotions she works to dissociate herself from. By denying herself empathy for others, she loses her ability to see herself as a subject. Her world is an aggregate of simple abstractions, and the role she assigns herself is no more complex or real than the roles she imposes on others. To avoid pain and vulnerability, she must be reductive in her perception of herself as well as her perceptions of the world around her.

Maria's collapse occurs when she has objectified her life to the extreme. She goes to the desert, wandering about the wasteland of a town, aware of the emotional complexities and the ugliness of the relationships between Carter, Helene, BZ, Suzannah Wood, and Harrison Porter. She is no longer capable of reaction. The culmination is, of course, BZ's death and her institutionalization. But as she leaves for the desert, her own voice, the one which introduced the novel, begins to reemerge in the short, intrusive chapters. In these first-person accounts, the reader sees the institutionalized Maria coming to terms with the role she had adopted throughout the novel; they are accounts of her realization of what she had done and been. While they do not signal recovery, they do indicate that she is becoming aware, that she recognizes that she has plunged as far as she can go and is beginning a positive reassessment of herself. The stychomythia, or internal debate, of these distinctly different narrative voices also provides readers an indication of Didion's own stance to her protagonist. Readers are not allowed at this point to identify with the disintegrating Maria; rather they are suddenly elevated above the decay of her personality. In this, Didion may be indicating her own criticism of Maria's narcissism, forcing readers to recognize that the novel itself is not inherently narcissistic: the alternating voices strongly suggest the infusion of a new sense of subjectivity.

Maria first acknowledges her misguided pattern of objectification when she admits she has been “burdened by the particular,” recognizing that she has been avoiding subjective response by escaping it through abstractions. She begins to understand that she is not entirely alone in her perceptions of herself, that others observe both her and the world from positions as objective as hers have been. Her shedding of the latent, artificial romanticism comes with the awareness that she must “play it as it lays,” accept life as it comes. For the first time, she feels the need to justify what she had done, particularly her participation in BZ's suicide, and she recognizes the complexity that Kate represents as a unique individual. For the first time, she explores what she thinks might have happened to her and formulates her first rational and viable plan for the future; however slender a hope it might offer, she is beginning to form a sense of order that embraces a truly subjective response to the world, Kate, and herself. The last of these interpolations closes the novel and reveals Maria as an inchoate existentialist, a woman unburdened of pretense and romance who can survive knowing the absurdity of the world. She now possesses the capacity for survival because she can say “why not” live. These are the reactions of a woman who, beginning to make contact with her true self, can now recognize and exercise individual choice.

Her assertion that, “I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird” represents a new understanding of her life and existence in general; she can now say, “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.” But Maria's sense of nothingness is not the same as BZ's nihilism, which drove him to suicide; her sense is one that allows her to continue. She rejects her earlier, destructive belief in external control, in reward and punishment, and she contrasts herself with Carter and Helene, who “still believe in cause-effect.” She is willing to accept the present, unembellished by analyses or alterations of the past and unfettered by considerations of the distant future. Her opening lines, “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask,” signal her abandonment of her quixotic search for causes, answers, and motivations; “To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point.” She is beginning to recreate herself as the woman she is now, not as the daughter-model-lover-wife-actress-mother she was cast as before.

While she knows that “Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes,” she has also come to realize that “Carter and Helene still ask questions. I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing.” She is still in treatment and she realizes that she has work yet to do. She must tame her grandiose self and find her true self; to this end, she adopts an existential stance: “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action.” Her plan is clear, simple, and realistic: “Now that I have the answer, my plans for the future are these: (1) get Kate, (2) live with Kate alone, (3) do some canning.” Disburdened of guilt, having rejected others' assignment of her role, Maria is beginning to take responsibility for and control of her life for the first time.

Kernberg defines the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder as follows:

grandiosity, extreme self-centeredness, and a remarkable absence of interest in and empathy for others in spite of the fact that they are so very eager to obtain admiration and approval from other people. These patients experience a remarkably intense envy of other people who seem to have things they do not have or who simply seem to enjoy their lives. These patients not only lack emotional depth and fail to understand complex emotions in other people, but their own feelings lack differentiation. … When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what on the surface looks like depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.

Clearly applicable to Maria, this diagnosis also includes another dimension, wherein “the devaluation of objects and object images on the part of patients with pathological narcissism creates a constant emptiness in their social life and reinforces their internal experience of emptiness.” This same position is argued by Kohut, who observes that “the patient will describe subtly experienced, yet pervasive feelings of emptiness and depression,” while feeling “that he is not fully real, or at least that his emotions are dulled. …” Clearly, in diagnostic and therapeutic terms, this is the condition from which Maria suffers and for which she is being treated in the framing narrative.

The essential duality of Maria's selfhood is signaled early in the novel by her feelings about the two movies she has been in. She likes the commercial film because she sees herself in it as another person, objectified, abstract, and well within the realm of the “not-I”: “the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.” She prefers the sureness of its neat conclusion to the other, which “represented some reality not fully apprehended by the girl Maria played”; it is simple, objective, and patently false. The other movie chronicles a day in her own life and exposes her, the Maria she tries so disastrously to conceal. “She never thought of it as Maria. She thought of it always as that first picture.” But the film represents everything Maria tries to avoid yet has passively accepted: “The girl on the screen in that first picture had no knack for anything.” Her use of past tenses indicates her purposeful distancing of these contrasting images of herself, and her attitudes toward the films serve as a paradigm for the true self/false self split that has controlled all aspects of her life.

This duality reveals her essential conflict, self-definition, and her relationship to the world. A basic but false sense of superiority provides her with a comfortable distance from others, who seem to her only to offer the possibility of more pain, but she distances herself from herself in the process, losing touch with people, friends, her environment, and finally herself. For these reasons, Maria is “thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” Only when Maria allows aspects of the true self to reach consciousness can she finally begin to expose herself, be vulnerable, and accept the fact that she cannot reduce her life to a series of abstractions. And in the clinic, stripped of all but self, Maria seems to be beginning the process of rediscovery, one hopes, to reemerge as an existentialist who has control and can build a life around herself, rather than creating a static tableau which simply includes a character she arbitrarily chooses to call “Maria.”

Further Reading

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Blankley, Elyse. “Clear-Cutting the Western Myth: Beyond Joan Didion.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy, pp. 177-94. Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 1995.

Examines the “myth of a vanishing Eden” in the novel Run River.

Chabot, C. Barry. “Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and the Vacuity of the ‘Here and Now.’” Critique XXI, No. 3 (1980): 53-60.

Discusses the existential solution of the character Marie Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, arguing that it provides merely an illusory relief from the problem.

Coale, Samuel. “Didion's Disorder: An American Romancer's Art.” Critique 25, No. 3 (Spring 1984): 160-70.

Discusses Didion as a writer of classically Romantic sensibility.

Felton, Sharon. “Joan Didion: A Writer of Scope and Substance.” Hollins Critic XXVI, No. 4 (October 1989): 1-11.

Provides an overview of major themes in Didion's literary canon.

Hinchman, Sandra. “Making Sense and Making Stories: Problems of Cognition and Narration in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays.Centennial Review XXIX, No. 4 (Fall 1985): 457-73.

Discusses the ways in which Didion's personal “cognitive dislocations” turn up in her fiction, particularly Play It As It Lays.

Merivale, Patricia. “Through Greene-Land in Drag: Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer.Pacific Coast Philology XV, (October 1980): 45-52.

Examines A Book of Common Prayerin light of Graham Greene's “elegiac romance” The Quiet American.

Mosley, Merritt. “Joan Didion's Symbolic Landscapes.” South Carolina Review 21, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 55-64.

Discusses the symbolic significance of geographic locations in Didion's work.

Nadel, Alan. “Failed Cultural Narratives: America in the Postwar Era and Story of Democracy.Boundary 2 19, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 95-120.

Attempts a modern allegorical reading of Democracy.

Phillips, D. Z. “Mystery and Mediation: Reflections on Flannery O'Connor and Joan Didion.” In Images of Belief in Literature, edited by David Jasper, pp. 24-40. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Discusses elements of religious mystery in the works of O'Connor and Didion.

Randisi, Jennifer. “The Journey Nowhere: Joan Didion's Run River.Markham Review 11, (Spring 1982): 41-43.

Analyzes the metaphoric image of rivers in literature, arguing that Didion's Run River turns the image from one of heroic self-discovery to one of existential inevitability.

Schow, H. Wayne. “Out of Africa, The White Album, and the Possibility of Tragic Affirmation.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 67, No. 1 (February 1986): 35-50.

Contrasts the potential of “tragic affirmation” in the works of two writers on opposite sides of World War I, considered the watershed event in modern history.

Tager, Michael. “The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy.Critique XXXI, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 173-84.

Argues that the title of Democracyis meant to be ironic, in light of Didion's examination in the novel of anti-democratic forces.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Play It As It Lays: Didion and the Diver Heroine.” Contemporary Literature XXIV, No. 4 (Winter 1983): 480-95.

Contends that critical assessments of Play It As It Lays tend to take the novel at face value, ignoring or missing the novel as a quest narrative.

Additional coverage of Didion's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 52; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors, 3.0; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 173, 185; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 81, 86; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Mark Z. Muggli (essay date October 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Poetics of Joan Didion's Journalism,” in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 3, October, 1987, pp. 402-21.

[In the following essay, Muggli examines what he considers Didion's “Imagistic” journalistic technique.]

Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and communication theorists have written valuable general analyses of the print media, but close analysis of individual journalistic texts has been rare. Shelley Fisher Fishkin has effectively studied the relationship of the journalism and fiction of five earlier American writers; and the New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s stimulated discussion of the lengthy factual works of writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote, precisely because the analysis useful for novels seemed appropriate to these writers' para-fictions. But even the books on Joan Didion, including the otherwise useful anthology edited by Ellen Friedman, continue to underrepresent Didion's journalism. Her journalism deserves more detailed study, not merely because it comes from one of our important novelists and essayists, but because—unlike most reporting—it continues to speak with such authority.

Most recent discussion of literary journalism has focused on reporters' complex involvement in their own news stories; a related argument over “objective” presentation and “subjective” interpretation continues in the popular press. The speaker of Didion's journalism has therefore gained some attention. Her “I” goes beyond the intentionally neutral voice of the daily newsreporter—it is a created, shifting character who speaks memorably and who sometimes anatomizes her own responses. But the most distinctive feature of Didion's journalism is not her presentation of self but her presentation of objects and events.

Didion's reviewers and readers have always been conscious of her detail, but what one calls “vivid” another calls “symbolic.” Journalism textbooks cannot help define Didion's effects more precisely, since these textbooks emphasize the importance of detail without distinguishing kinds of detail. Semioticians have begun to systematically study how signs are incorporated into more comprehensive codes, but no one has yet produced a taxonomy subtle enough to substitute for the analysis of individual texts. At least for the present, Didion's rhetoric of fact is best approached through the close analysis practiced by critics interpreting individual literary texts.


Didion has often commented that her psychic life is dominated by images. In “At the Dam” she writes, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw the Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” In her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem she writes about words that function like a physical image: “certain lines from the Yeats poem \“The Second Coming“] … have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.” Didion has explored her relationship to such images most fully in “Why I Write,” where she asserts that she does not think “in abstracts” but is, rather, drawn “inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible”; she says much the same thing in “On Morality.” She further explains, “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. … You can't think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop” (“Why I Write”).

Didion's “pictures” develop in different ways and thus serve different purposes. They sometimes seem as if they might have come from the objective newsreporter that the journalism textbooks envision. It is true, as Katherine Henderson says, that “Didion never writes simple news stories.” Didion does not begin with the textbook's summarizing hard lead, organize her material in an inverted pyramid, develop her story from a news peg, or write in the telegraphic news style. But at some points Didion and the newsreporter share the crucial assumption that they present objects and events as documents that recreate history. The histories of philosophy and literary criticism bristle with arguments over language, meaning, and truth; and the practice and theory of journalism are inevitably implicated in these debates. But for present purposes, judging the possibility of objectivity is less important than noting the rhetorical effect of data that claim to be merely objective.

We are not intended, for example, to make too much of the background that Didion gives us on Martin T. Corley, “a man in an aloha shirt who had gone from South Ozone Park in Queens to the Battle of the Bulge to a course in cemetery management at Fort Sam Houston and finally, twenty-some years later, to an office in an extinct volcano in the Pacific” (“In the Islands”). His is a somewhat unusual job in a singular place, but the aloha shirt is not any more remarkable in Honolulu than a blue cotton work shirt would be on a cemetery manager in Kansas City. And it does not in this context matter that Corley studied in Texas rather than in Oregon. The detail, tied to an historical moment and an objective place, carries rhetorical weight as documentation precisely because it does not illustrate any of the story's arguments.

Because such circumstantial detail seldom appears in Didion's journalism, she was right to deny in Slouching Towards Bethlehem that she is a “camera eye.” In fact Didion is so unlike a camera that she occasionally creates details for her stories. The journalist's invention of detail, usually through composite characterization or the reporting of characters' unspoken thoughts, has been the focus of most attacks on the New Journalism's accuracy, a controversy admirably surveyed in Fishkin's “Epilogue” in From Fact to Fiction. But my interest here is in the generalizing habit of mind that Didion's invented detail reveals.

Sometimes such detail is obviously invented (“I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full”). And sometimes the detail fits so precisely that it can easily slip by as reported fact. Since the new California governor's mansion, for example, has not been lived in and has no carpets or drapes, the bookshelves are undoubtedly empty. Yet Didion writes, “In the entire house there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur” (“Many Mansions”). Didion has not seen these books and knick-knacks; she has hypothesized them as the possessions typical of people like the Reagans.

Didion's familiarity with Hawaii leads her to construct much of the detail in “In the Islands.” To illustrate the “inclusivity” of the Royal Hawaiian's roped beach, she writes, “Anyone behind the rope will watch over our children as we will watch over theirs, will not palm room keys or smoke dope or listen to Creedence Clearwater on a transistor when we are awaiting word from the Mainland on the prime rate.” Few people at the Royal Hawaiian are likely to know Creedence Clearwater by name, but the name adds specificity to Didion's generalization. Didion goes on, “The fact that anyone behind the rope would understand the word ‘Crosby’ to signify a golf tournament at Pebble Beach suggests the extent to which the Royal Hawaiian is not merely a hotel but a social idea.” The example “suggests” the hotel's essence, but Didion does not say whether she has actually seen someone understand the word “Crosby” in this way. Nor does she say that she has actually talked with the husbands who “scan the San Francisco and Los Angeles papers with the practiced disinterest of men who believe their lives safe in municipal bonds.”

If Didion had actually quoted a man who said that municipal bonds still seemed the safest investment for a comfortable future, we would not really be any closer to knowing whether, for example, 33٪ of the married men traveling to Honolulu from 1930 through 1970 had more than 40٪ of their wealth in municipal bonds. (That particular kind of objectivity is the goal of the “precision journalists” trained in sociology and statistics.) And yet an actual quotation would have a different rhetorical effect from Didion's generalizations. Didion does not tell us what she heard, but what she might have heard. This distinction between what actually happened and what generally happens is the basis of Aristotle's distinction between history and poetry; and it is the same distinction that Didion uses to explain the different kinds of detail that she collects in her notebook. For the “objective” journalist, the difference between what happened and what happens is fundamental, but we should not be too surprised that in commenting on her personal notebook Didion adds, “I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters” (“On Keeping a Notebook”).

In “Alicia and the Underground Press,” Didion writes that the Underground Press is not read for its facts. Neither should Didion be read for hers. Literal facts are usually her starting point, but figurality gives her journalism much of its interest. Katherine Henderson distinguishes between Didion's “concrete images” and her “metaphors,” and she correctly comments that Didion gives us “her private and often anguished experience as a metaphor for the writer, for her generation, and sometimes for the entire society.” But metaphors with such different purposes should be distinguished as separate tropes. In a provocative theoretical article, David Eason characterizes the New Journalism by applying Roman Jakobson's distinction between metonymy (similarity between terms from the same context) and metaphor (similarity between terms from different contexts). Jakobson's model makes possible Eason's effective analysis of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night. But as Jonathan Culler points out in surveying some applications of Jakobson's theories, the radical distinction between metonymy and metaphor disintegrates under close scrutiny. And even if accepted as parts of a working model, Eason's terms seem to me misapplied. He digs a deep trench between the metonymy of conventional reporting and the metaphor of the New Journalism. But all journalism begins with metonymy because it begins with history; second, the best journalism of all periods has some generalizing, metaphorical force; third, actual metaphors, in Jakobson's restricted sense, are rare even in the New Journalism. Thus, describing the rhetoric of a journalist like Didion involves analyzing the process by which metonymic detail assumes different degrees of metaphoric power.

At the least metaphoric level, Didion's representative images are like the recorded detail that Tom Wolfe says is “symbolic, generally, of people's status life.” Didion's stories contain so much of this symbolic detail that it hardly needs citing. The “bright pastels of the Springtime Home owners” figuratively contrast with “the faded bungalows of the people who grow a few grapes and keep a few chickens” father down the road (“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”). The lack of signs on Joan Baez's School for Nonviolence at first seems to be a merely physical fact, but the building's anonymous exterior gradually becomes a symbol for the school's cozy inwardness (“Where the Kissing Never Stops”).

What sets Didion apart from most other journalists is her dependence on an extreme form of metaphor that moves along a spectrum beyond symbol to what we might call “emblem.” The Renaissance emblem was a symbolic woodcut or engraving accompanied by a motto and a verse explication. Although Didion's emblems are not literally visual, Francis Quarles's seventeenth-century comment that the “Emblem is but a silent Parable” aptly characterizes those timeless, static pictures that typify Didion's journalism at its most memorable. Didion refers to her emblematic mode with terms like “emblem,” “literary image,” “symbol,” “icon,” “parable,” “koan,” “allegory,” “apologue,” “microcosm,” “totem,” “ideogram,” and “homily.” By whatever name, the emblem operates, for both Didion and the reader, something like this:

The mood of Berkeley in those years was one of mild but chronic “depression,” against which I remember certain small things that seemed to me somehow explications, dazzling in their clarity, of the world I was about to enter: I remember a woman picking daffodils in the rain one day when I was walking in the hills. I remember a teacher who drank too much one night and revealed his fright and bitterness. I remember my real joy at discovering for the first time how language worked, at discovering, for example, that the central line of Heart of Darkness was a postscript. (“On the Morning After the Sixties”)

Didion has fixed on these images so forcefully that they appear not as metonymic bits of observed history, even though nearly all of them were that once, nor even as symbols for groups of people or types of events. Instead, these images have become emblems that reverberate with an intensity that suggests a large world of meaning beyond the confines of the particular story. The emblem does not illustrate, or even represent—it evokes. It seems timeless because it has been released from history. The woman picking daffodils is no longer a mere individual, nor does she symbolize those who walk in nature and gather flowers. Her image suggests, perhaps, the rich aesthetic of single, slightly incongruous acts. The teacher is not an individual, nor even a representative teacher, but an emblem of the pain that is another core of all adult life, of existence itself.

The precise boundary between symbol and emblem is elusive. The distinction lies partly in the emblem's intangible “shimmering.” All the stylistic features listed by Katherine Henderson contribute to this intensity, but the emblems are reinforced especially by repetitive rhythmical cadences and repetition of words, as in Salvador, for example, where the word “wall” appears seven times in the space of sixty words. Very often the emblem ends a section of a story and is therefore given a white space in which to echo. Even the organization of Didion's collections has affected the impact of certain emblems, since the final stories in her subsections gain this same echoing white space.

The emblem's most important quality is the high level of generality that it tries to convey, often explicitly. Didion says Sam Peckinpah's difficulty in arranging the water for one day's filming “is a California parable, but a true one” (“Holy Water”). In another story she calls Las Vegas “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements” (“Marrying Absurd”). In “At the Dam” she first says that the Hoover Dam is memorable because it capsulizes the West's history, she then suggests that it somehow exemplifies pure energy, but she finally sees it even more generally as an image of a time that transcends all human time.

In another story Didion writes that James Pike is “a literary character in the sense that Howard Hughes and Whittaker Chambers were literary characters, a character so ambiguous and driven and revealing of his time and place that his gravestone in the Protestant Cemetery in Jaffa might well have read only JAMES PIKE, AMERICAN”; later she writes, “The man was a Michelin to his time and place” (“James Pike, American”). Didion explains that it was only some time after she had heard the story of Pike's death that she came to see him in this emblematic way: “That was 1969. For some years afterward I could make nothing at all of this peculiar and strikingly ‘now’ story, so vast and atavistic was my irritation with the kind of man my grandmother would have called ‘just a damn old fool,’ the kind of man who would go into the desert with the sappy Diane and two bottles of Coca-Cola, but I see now that Diane and the Coca-Cola are precisely the details which lift the narrative into apologue.” The particular historical facts, the Coca-Cola and the sappy Diane (admittedly an interpreted historical fact), somehow release the story from its historicity and allow it to evoke the much larger story of a nation.

The image of James Pike gains much of its effect from built-in ironies, and this is typical of many of Didion's emblems. At first Didion thinks that the unavailability of From Here to Eternity in Honolulu's bookstores is symbolic only of James Jones's literary reputation. But this fact takes on special emblematic force and suggests something about our whole culture when the “golden child” in charge of one bookstore recommends that Didion look for the book on the psychic-science shelf: “In that instant I thought I grieved for James Jones, a man I never met, but I think I grieved for all of us: for Jones, for myself, for the sufferers of mean guilts and for their exorcists, for Robert E. Lee Prewitt, for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and for this golden nitwit who believed eternity to be a psychic science” (“In the Islands”).

Didion discovers emblems everywhere, but certain images seem to her impervious to an interpretation that would transform them into emblems. Some of the early modernist poets reveled in the magic of an Image that had no paraphrasable theme. But for Didion, the uninterpreted Image is a timeless moment of despair—it is an inexplicable part of an inexplicable world, evoking a chaos indecipherable. The burning match that Jim Morrison holds at the fly of his black vinyl pants is not merely a recorded example of Morrison's personal habits, nor is it a symbol of the rock music scene, nor is it an emblem that eternizes the conflicts of the late 1960s (“The White Album”). It is an Image, a non-paraphrasable vision of a world without sense.

The Imagist poets were somewhat like those newsreporters who hope to recreate the objective world without commentary or abstraction (although, like Didion, the Imagists believed in the power of verbal compression rather than in the masses of historical data that most reporters rely on). Thus Didion's choice of the emblem over the Image is likewise a rejection of—to quote her trenchant pun—the “quite factitious ‘objectivity’” of the “conventional press” (“Alicia and the Underground Press”). On the other hand, the emblem cannot carry for Didion the weight it bore in the Renaissance, when the individual emblem was usually part of an inherited system of meaning. Medieval allegory, the Renaissance emblem, and Puritan typology, despite their major differences, are all part of a long, continuous tradition in which figurality is a method for exploring cosmological Truth. Even the American Transcendentalists, so sure that the inherited scriptures and traditions were inadequate, believed that the objective world contained the interlocking signs of a meaningful universe. There are patterns to the abstractions that undergird Didion's emblems, but these patterns are psychological, sociological and historical rather than spiritual. And in her introduction to “The White Album,” Didion writes that these patterns are imposed rather than discovered.

The difference between emblem and Image clarifies the difference between “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” Both stories are meant to be the centers of the collections that bear their titles, and both are filled with powerful, memorable images. But “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” also contains explicit and implicit theses about American culture in the 1960s, and the story's images therefore reverberate with explanation of the culture at large. The final scene of the story pictures Michael, the three-year-old who has burnt his arm in a fire he started, being yelled at by his mother for chewing on an electric cord, although “Sue Anne's macrobiotic friends and somebody who was on his way to a commune in the Santa Lucias” Don't notice because they're “trying to retrieve some very good Moroccan hash which had dropped down through a floorboard damaged in the fire.” Mark Winchell writes that this “last paragraph of ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ is eloquently symbolic, a veritable ideogram of the pathological self-absorption and moral disorder which pervade Haight-Ashbury.” The scene has this force partly because of Didion's “artistic control,” as Winchell says earlier, but also because she presents the scene within the framework of a carefully analyzed cultural breakdown. The young, she says, are often “unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level,” are “less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts”; “their only proficient vocabulary is the society's platitudes.” Without this framework, the five-year-old on acid, wearing white lipstick, might have been only an eternally disturbing Image of the bizarre.

In her “Preface” Didion says that many people misread “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” because they fixed on particulars rather than understanding the general problem of “atomization” that she found typified in Haight-Ashbury. She says that when she came to San Francisco she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act. … If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” Her final phrase is ambiguous because it could mean either that she needed to accept disorder or had to make some sense of it. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” Didion did in fact use her writing to make sense.

“The White Album,” on the other hand, is Didion's report on certain events that have resisted her understanding; these are the shimmering episodes that would in most of her work become emblems, but which here remain Images, parts of a story for which she says she can find no plot. Her experience during these years was “rather more electrical than ethical.” Didion, usually the moral analyst, claims that in the end her interests were merely aesthetic: “During the years when I found it necessary to revise the circuitry of my mind I discovered that I was no longer interested in whether the woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor jumped or did not jump, or in why. I was interested only in the picture of her in my mind: her hair incandescent in the floodlights, her bare toes curled inward on the stone ledge.”

“The White Album” contains events that testify to this personal and cultural breakdown. Didion's recounting in section 12 of a series of incidents having to do with different women's dresses is pure Image, is the “authentically senseless chain of correspondences” she thinks it is. The medical opinions of Didion's multiple sclerosis are “another story without a narrative.” Linda Kasabian's story, at least in the details and dense ironies that Didion reports, is an “impenetrable mystery,” as Didion calls the whole Manson case. In section 8 Didion tells of personally experiencing the period's senseless disorder as she is driving to report on the “revolution” at San Francisco State College. She turns the radio on loud “in an effort to erase six words from my mind, six words which had no significance for me but which seemed that year to signal the onset of anxiety or fright.” Significantly, the words are the second—and the less discursive—of the two lines of the quintessential Imagist poem, Ezra Pound's “In a Station of the Metro”: “Petals on a wet black bough.” In “Why I Write,” Didion says that during her college years, “I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.” She considers this concentration a return to her real, non-abstracting self, but “The White Album” suggests that in 1969, at least, Didion found no peace in contemplating petals. The Imagist breakthrough, an Image devoid of idea (in Pound's words, “the direct treatment of the ‘thing’”), is Didion's despair.

One limitation of “The White Album” is that it is written in conflicting journalistic modes. Section 8 Imagistically records Didion's anxiety, but her reporting from San Francisco State College in section 9 is a model of orderly analysis. She captures precisely the “wishful fantasy” of the would-be revolutionaries and the unconscious collaboration of the Trustees and the media-bound society, and she discovers a resonant emblem of the situation in the “scrawled note on the cafeteria door”: “Adjet-prop committee meeting in the Redwood Room.” She comments that “only someone who needed very badly to be alarmed could respond with force to a guerrilla band that not only announced its meetings on the enemy's bulletin board but seemed innocent of the spelling, and so the meaning, of the words it used.” Already in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” Didion had pinpointed the loss of language as one of the causes of the “social hemorrhaging” she saw in San Francisco. The story about San Francisco State College is more disturbing, since the young and old are in complicity and both have lost their language and codes, but Didion has nevertheless found a focus and form that allow her to use the story. The images here are ethical, not merely electrical.

Sections 3 and 4 of “The White Album,” dealing with The Doors and the music business in general, have the same uneasy relationship as sections 8 and 9. Didion's portrait of The Doors' recording session is unmitigated Image, a fiery series of incidents that resist interpretation. Yet the following section contains rather conventional journalism in which specific incidents symbolize the behavior and values (Wolfe's “Status life”) of the people in the music business: they share a passion for the unusual, a confusion of desire, a lack of a sense of time, and an overwhelming groupiness. Sections 3 and 4 fight each other because the first insists, in its evocation of senselessness, that the explanatory journalism of the following section is not really possible; and the two sections together epitomize the danger of a journalism that strains toward the emblematic. Didion can always discover a metaphorical dimension in specific incidents. But as she moves further away from the merely historical and pushes toward the emblematic, she sometimes finds the emblem incapable of evoking all that she wants it to. Jim Morrison and The Doors are more than symbols of groupiness and eccentricity, but Didion thinks she fails to reveal through them a vision of America, 1968, as she is capable, for example, of revealing the “American” in James Pike. And yet her picture of The Doors will not go away, it hangs with her just as Pound's Imagist poem does, a source of anxiety precisely because it resists her full interpretation.

The same is true of Didion's treatment of Huey Newton (“The White Album,” section 5). Didion understands Newton, and she finds details that show he is an unwitting victim of his role. But parts of Newton's story resist Didion's analysis. After he had been shot, he sought medical help at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital. “For a long time I kept a copy of this testimony \by the on-duty nurse] pinned to my office wall, on the theory that it illustrated a collision of cultures, a classic instance of an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level. This theory was shattered when I learned that Huey Newton was in fact an enrolled member of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.”

Didion wanted Newton's single story to “illustrate” a large thesis about cultural conflict, but the story was too complicated, too full of irony doubling back on irony, to carry that weight. Didion could have emblematized a revolutionary who refused to sign hospital admission forms—but a revolutionary with hospital insurance who nevertheless refuses to sign an admission form does not represent anything. Didion thus abandons Newton's story just as she abandons the interminable recording sessions of The Doors. A different kind of journalist would have gone back in the hope that more data might elucidate these stories. Perhaps that is what Mark Winchell suggests in his comment that “The White Album” “would have been more effective had Didion's focus been less diffuse, had she not left us wanting to know so much more about the Fergussons and Linda Kasabian.” But for Didion, the sparse details of the Image remain fixed and insoluble.

In section 7 Didion dissects a list of things that she brought along on reporting trips. She notices that the list contains no watch. This, she says, “may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.” We recognize the incident as a symbol of her life, and we might even be able to see it as an emblem of the period as it is characterized in “The White Album.” But even the care she gives the explanation of this image cannot bring us to see it as an emblem of the whole diverse period that The White Album documents. The “Good Citizens” of California and the people of the Invisible City (“Notes Toward a Dreampolitik”) are not this easily contained. In 1969 Didion herself admitted “I am not the society in microcosm,” but the admission comes only when she is in a “state of profound emotional shock,” in Hawaii “in lieu of filing for a divorce” (“In the Islands”). When in despair, she is unable to generate the large cultural emblems that typify her best journalism.

Didion's self-proclaimed failure in “The White Album” to impose “a narrative line upon disparate images,” combined with her remarks about the meaninglessness of experience and her fixation on particularity, has overly influenced the criticism of her work. John Hollowell's essay “Against Interpretation,” which opens and closes with references to “The White Album,” effectively explains much in A Book of Common Prayer. But he misrepresents most of Didion's journalism with his judgment that the “anti-interpretive stance \is] found throughout Didion's work.” Ellen Friedman, for another example, writes, “Although Didion doubts the meaning of facts, doubts ‘narratives,’ she has always trusted in the particular, in the reality of facts. … Didion's is the most depressing writing I know. It is also among the truest and most brilliant.” Actually, Didion's journalism rarely trusts the merely “particular,” and in “The White Album” she reveals her terror at the reality of facts that lack the greater reality of idea. And although much of Didion's journalism may be depressing in its portrayal of failed acts and blunted desires, it is not depressing in Friedman's sense that it shows our lack of “power to recreate the world, imbue it with meaning, restore coherence and purpose.” Irving Malin rightly argues with Didion's conclusion to “The White Album”: “Didion ends by not believing that we live better lives because of stories. But she lies (and knows it). She deliberately writes this essay to affirm (after all the empty spots) that her experiences, which she claims have no significant meaning, do have a meaning. I think the meaning is quite clear in spite of the various lies and games and detours.” And the collection in which “The White Album” appears undermines even further Didion's claim of impenetrability. Story after story proves the usefulness of the emblematic method Didion cannot sustain in the title story.

In Salvador, her most recent journalism, Didion again asserts that she experiences only the incomprehensible material that I call Image. Again she encounters “overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive.” In this spirit she calls the Metropolitan Cathedral “perhaps the only unambiguous political statement in El Salvador.” She characterizes one story she hears about the Franciscans in Gotera as “one of those occasional windows that open onto the heart of El Salvador and then close, a glimpse of the impenetrable interior.” At one point Didion comments on the kind of journalism she usually writes, but which is inapplicable to this topic:

This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a true noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy's back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.

All this insistence on the incomprehensibility of the Salvadoran experience might seem likely to cripple Salvador just as it did “The White Album,” since it denies the elucidating power of journalism and of Didion's emblematic method in particular. But the claim of impenetrability does not dominate Salvador as it does “The White Album.” It serves instead as a tension-building hypothesis that shocks us into seeing the place's horror. Didion does not abandon the story, as she is forced to abandon the young boy being herded into the van. In Salvador she imposes the narrative that “The White Album” lacks. In an essay that interprets Salvador much as I do, Frederick Kiley notes Didion's themes and her use of “imagery and metaphor,” and concludes, “And the result is, in spite of her frequent protests of the ineffability of the place, a remarkably successful literary approach to a dismal truth that lies far beyond words.”

Didion's method in Salvador is similar to her method in the smaller report “Bogotá.” Bogotá's terror is mainly past, and the place has always been less a frontier than El Salvador, but Didion claims to leave Bogotá as she leaves El Salvador, with “mainly images, indelible but difficult to connect.” Didion tentatively offers one of these physical images as a point of cohesion: “In fact the mountains loom behind every image I remember, and perhaps are themselves the connection.” But she also offers the abstract assertion that the place is dominated by “autosuggestion” and “stories a child might invent” (note Didion's similar wording in Salvador: “the American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer”). This general argument prepares us to understand the story's closing image of her visit to the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral and the dinner that followed. Didion uses precisely reported detail and suspense to transform this final image into an emblem of her final assertion: “It seemed to me later that I had never before seen and would perhaps never again see the residuum of European custom so movingly and pointlessly observed.”

Didion leaves El Salvador—as she left Bogotá—with abstract arguments that give plot to her images. She perceives a widespread “vocation for terror” and a consequent “mechanism of terror” that are at the heart of Salvadoran life. She claims further that Salvador is a frontier society with no useful history of its own, and therefore lives in a timeless present; that the present situation is untranslatable partly because the culture places so little value on “the definite”; and that no real issues are at stake, with the possible exception of race, although various factions need to give the impression abroad that they care about such issues as human rights, division of wealth, and democracy.

Although there is more wide-ranging data in Salvador than in any of Didion's other journalism, a series of resonant emblems carry the weight of Didion's argument. The Puerta del Diablo, the site of countless nighttime executions, is so evocative that a mere description conveys terror. Such “body dumps” are made more emblematic by President Magaña's aide who seems interested only in the geothermal resources of El Playón, another notorious place of death. Near the cliff's edge above Puerta del Diablo a woman is learning to drive a Toyota—again, not proof that terror dominates Salvadoran life, but a scene that leads us emotionally to believe that it does. Similarly effective is the lengthy description of Didion and her husband sitting alone at night in a sidewalk cafe, watched by men with rifles, the candle on their table the only light.

Thus Didion's emblematic portrait of El Salvador outweighs her initial assertion that no “story” can be told about this place. In addition, Salvador reveals an even more general story, which is the tie between El Salvador and the outside world, especially the United States. The emblems of Salvadoran life contain foreign elements that fit badly, that are so ironical that Didion tires of cataloguing them: a woman sticks prices on bars of Camay and Johnson's baby soap and sells iced Coca-Colas as she tells of the deaths in the neighborhood and of her fears for her son; a woman smelling of Arpège and suffering from fear shares Didion's taxi seat in absolute silence; the wagons of death are bullet-proofed Cherokee Chiefs.

Foreign life fits badly but is thought necessary, which leads to Didion's central assertion about El Salvador and the United States. In its original publication in the New York Review of Books, part II of Salvador had the Spanish title “Soluciones” because Didion is talking about the various solutions that the Salvadorans pretend to seek. But these “Soluciones” are the United States's “Illusions,” the English title of part III. They are the various programs that support the larger illusion that progress is being made. The United States's present solution is different from the Jaycees' vision of “the underdeveloped world as a temporarily depressed area in need mainly of People-to-People programs,” (“Good Citizens”), but both solutions, Didion would say, are typically North American. As she writes in her essay on Doris Lessing, “the impulse to final solutions … is not an impulse I hold high” (“Doris Lessing”). It may in this sense be, as Kiley suggests, that Didion's story reaches to an even more general level to reveal “the awful capacities that lie dormant in the human heart of darkness.” Lynne T. Hanley writes that in Salvador, “Didion clings to detail as though it alone convinces her she is in the presence of the actual.” Didion's detail is vivid, but even a somewhat cursory analysis of Salvador makes clear that her images are not Image, the non-meaningful particular, but are emblems that capsulize meaning at a number of levels of generality beyond themselves.


Didion is under the spell of images, as she says in “Why I Write” and elsewhere, but she is even more fixed on discovering these images' resonance. Both her fiction and her journalism have explored how precision, rhythm, and structure can unbind this resonance. Yet clarifying the distinctive mode of Didion's journalism does not prove its quality. Her journalism has, after all, generated hostile criticism as well as accolades. And usually the criticism implies a judgment of her method, her attempt to transform bits of history into generalized cultural emblems.

Such criticism finds a voice within Didion's own work. For example, her complaint about an incident she noticed on a trip to Hawaii epitomizes attacks against the claustrophobic oversimplification of some of her own emblems: “I disliked \this incident] because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those ‘little epiphany’ stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger's life … and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do” (“In the Islands”).

In another place Didion's comments on the New Testament's analogical method suggest the opposite criticism—that the emblem's non-discursiveness makes it either impenetrable or too open to varied or eccentric response: “I was brought up Episcopalian, and I stopped going to church because I hated the stories. You know the story about the prodigal son? I have never understood that story. I have never understood why the prodigal son should be treated any better than the other son. I have missed the point of a lot of parables.”

One of Didion's defenders perhaps unintentionally reveals a distrust of the laconism in Didion that underlies these two opposite criticisms. In her review of A Book of Common Prayer, Joyce Carol Oates begins by generalizing about “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: “The drifting, inarticulate children of the 1960's, drug-besotted and prematurely aged, take on for Didion an almost allegorical significance. They are the pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change.” Didion's journalism has always assumed that the “almost allegorical,” the emblematic, is itself the evidence for the thesis it represents. But to the critics who ask for “genuine evidence” of this cultural breakdown, Oates recommends not a more sympathetic re-reading of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” but the novel A Book of Common Prayer. It is questionable whether critics who yearn for the massed factual data that the emblem cannot provide will be convinced by an only slightly more detailed fiction. Oates herself ends her highly positive review of the novel with one criticism: “I would have wished it longer, fuller.”

But accepting Didion's method, who can deny her power? Her stylistic intensity and her drive towards the emblematic make her one of the great American prose-poets. Yet she is not therefore any less a journalist, since journalists have always treated history in diverse ways. We Don't need more polemic about the superiority of the various old or new journalisms, nor more general paeans to Didion's keen eye, but a clearer and more detailed analysis of how writers like Didion incorporate the world in their texts. We need a greater appreciation for the sophisticated poetics of factual literature.

Katherine Usher Henderson (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7317

SOURCE: “The Bond between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1989, pp. 69-85.

[In the following essay, Henderson calls Democracy “an uneasy affirmation of the possibility of personal meaning” because of its portrayal of the relationship between its central female characters.]

When Susan Stamberg told Joan Didion in a 1977 radio interview that she would never win the Nobel Prize for literature because her novels were too pessimistic, Didion readily agreed.

I think that's probably true. … One of the books that made the strongest impression on me when I was in college was The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James's heroine, Isabel Archer, was the prototypic romantic idealist. It trapped her, and she ended up a prisoner of her own ideal. I think a lot of us do. My adult life has been a succession of expectations, misperceptions. I dealt only with an ideal I had of the world, not with the world as it was. The reality does intervene eventually. I think my early novels were ways of dealing with the revelation that experience is largely meaningless. \Emphasis mine.]

At the time of this interview, Didion had published three novels—Run River (1963), Play It As It Lays (1970), and A Book of Common Prayer (1977). To Stamberg's earlier challenge that she found Play It As It Lays and Common Prayer frightening, even distasteful, Didion had answered obliquely, “A Book of Common Prayer is … not a good deal more cheerful, but I think it's not as ugly.”

By the end of Common Prayer, two of the four major characters are dead and a third, the narrator, is dying. Yet its atmosphere is not unreservedly ugly because it embodies a powerful existential moral: In a world ruled by a capricious and elusive deity (or perhaps no deity at all), people must care for one another. Our conduct must evidence a “common prayer” of grace and love, for we are bound by common morality. Decent characters in the novel are defined by their attempts to care for those who are weak or endangered. Charlotte Douglas cares for her dying baby and for the children of Boca Grande. Leonard Douglas cares for Charlotte and even—an extraordinary act of generosity—for her dying first husband. Grace Strasser-Mendana tries desperately to save Charlotte's life. Despite the courage and concern of these characters, however, the novel affirms nothing beyond the existential fact of death as the measure of friendship and love.

In a perceptive essay on “The Didion Sensibility” written shortly before the publication of Democracy, Ellen G. Friedman stated that Didion “has no faith in the authority of individual choice and action. The individual in her view is not endowed with the power to recreate the world, imbue it with meaning, restore coherence and purpose.” As Friedman acknowledged, however, Didion's characters are often redeemed by an immense capacity for commitment and love, even when—as is usually the case—that commitment is doomed to fall far short of its purpose. In Run River Lily's commitment to Everett cannot save him from suicide; in Play It As It Lays Maria's commitment to her daughter cannot restore the child to health. While intense, the heroine's devotion is in both cases flawed; Lily contributes to Everett's destruction by her repeated infidelities, and Maria cannot accept the limitations of her daughter's illness. Although both women, like Charlotte and Grace in Common Prayer, are ennobled by love, the love is ultimately powerless to create coherence even within the family, far less within the community or the world.

At the end of her interview with Stamberg, Didion said, “My next novel is going to take place in Hawaii. I can't describe the picture, except that it is very pink and it smells like flowers, and I'm afraid to describe it out loud because if I describe it out loud I won't write it down.” For this novel, which she worked on over seven years, Didion created a new prototype of character and a new universe of personal relationships; for the first time in her fictional world, she created characters capable of successful loyalties and of purposeful lives. Democracy is not a fanciful novel—it includes a fair share of fools and villains—but it also portrays two strong and autonomous women whose lives mesh in a pattern of order and purpose. The novel is an uneasy affirmation of the possibility of personal meaning in a world where society and politics are defined by artifice and self-seeking.

The sensibility from which Democracy evolved was deeply affected by Didion's travels in Latin America and in Asia, where she stayed in both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. She has given us a full report of one of these visits, the trip to El Salvador that she took with her husband, the writer John Dunne, in June 1982. The long essay Salvador (1983) is an account of the events and impressions of their two-week stay. The techniques of Salvador are those that define her earlier journalism: a precise rendering of what she saw, heard, and felt, a complete absence of sentimentality, a bluntness of tone that serves to make the terror more palpable. In Salvador in the summer of 1982, no place and no one was safe; ordinary parking lots sported cars with bullet-shattered windshields and congealed blood on the upholstery; ordinary people disappeared to turn up (if ever) as viciously mutilated bodies.

Both in the book and in interviews about it, Didion stated that the trip was the most terrifying experience of her life. Reporter Leslie Garis asked them why they went.

Dunne answers instantly, “Oh, we were desperate to go.”

“Desperate to go,” Didion echoes. …

“I was interested in what the United States was doing in El Salvador,” she says.

In her career as a reporter, Didion has always felt the pull of public and private catastrophes, often seeing them as emblems of our time. In the sixties she felt a personal need to witness the pain that seared the United States—the children on drugs in Haight-Ashbury, the Manson murder trial, the burial of young Americans killed in Vietnam. Since the late seventies, she has been drawn to the pain in other countries as well, especially those with which the United States has been involved.

Democracy reflects the inner changes in Didion that both led to and resulted from her trip to Salvador. It was no longer a novel set in Hawaii, but a novel spanning two continents, a novel in which personal and political lives are inextricably intertwined. The first Didion novel to contain portraits of fulfilling adult relationships, it is set—paradoxically—against a background of political violence and social chaos. From its opening sentence—“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see”—the novel projects a world contracted through technology into a single community existing under the threat of nuclear holocaust. Every major character is affected by the central political event of the novel, the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975. Corruption and instability in government are mirrored throughout by disloyalty and disorder in the extended and nuclear family.

The very real chaos in the realms of politics and society today creates a challenge for the novelist, for the novel is that form of literature that traditionally defines the individual in relation to institutions such as family, community, and nation. When these relationships lose meaning, the characters must either be shown to find meaning from another source or life's insignificance will be tacitly affirmed. The voice and “self” of the narrator often assume a crucial importance in this question of the locus of life's larger meaning.

In Part I of Democracy, the narrative “self” that Didion projects is problematic. “I began thinking about Inez Victor and Jack Lovett at a point in my life when I lacked certainty, lacked even that minimum level of ego essential to the writing of novels, lacked conviction, lacked patience with the past and interest in memory; lacked faith even in my own technique.” “Call me the author,” she proclaims at the opening of chapter 2 but acknowledges that she has lost her author(ity) as novelist; she knows neither where nor how to begin. She lacks the easy confidence of the Victorian narrator (she mentions Trollope). She identifies with the “gold-feathered bird” in Wallace Stevens's poem “Of Mere Being,” the bird who “sings in the palm, without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.” She has no plot, only dreams, images, and fragments of poems. “I have those pink dawns of which Jack Lovett spoke. I have the dreams, recurrent, in which my whole field of vision fills with rainbow, in which I open a door into a growth of tropical green. … Consider any of these things long enough and you will see that they tend to deny the relevance not only of personality but of narrative, which makes them less than ideal images with which to begin a novel, but we go with what we have.”

For the rest of this chapter and the first portion of the next, she tells us about the novel she is not writing, the historical novel of Hawaii that would trace the childhood and ancestry of Inez Christian, that was to have been written from Inez's point of view. Democracy is a later version of the novel originally entitled Angel Visits, begun shortly after the completion of A Book of Common Prayer. Angel Visits opened with Inez Victor's recollection of her mother; its first line was, “I have never seen Madame Bovary in the flesh but imagine my mother dancing.” In Democracy, Angel Visits has become “the shards of the novel I am no longer writing. … I lost patience with it. I lost nerve.”

The skeleton of a romantic novel is constructed and then deconstructed. The reader is mystified. The critics were, too, although some applauded and others panned. “What is Didion doing as character in her own novel?” was the question most insistently raised by reviewers. If she is writing autobiography, is her story of Inez Christian and Jack Lovett and Harry Victor biography? (Mary McCarthy actually tried to find these people in Who's Who.) Didion employed unconventional narrative structures in earlier novels, but in none of them did she actually appear as a character.

The answer to the question raised by the reviews lies in Didion's self-definition as a writer. Writing is for her an act of self-discovery. “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Relentlessly scrupulous in this pursuit, Didion abandons projects that do not lead to essential self-knowledge. Sometime before or after her trip to El Salvador in 1982, Angel Visits, narrated by Inez Victor, no longer felt right. It was too provincial, too limited in scope; it was not addressing Didion's private thoughts and fears. Her awareness of America's interventionist strategies in foreign countries intruded; the trips to Asia and El Salvador intensified her quest to understand herself as a North American and as a citizen of the larger world.

At the same time, her fictional characters Inez Victor and Jack Lovett had already seized her imagination, moved into her study. (“I think you identify with all your characters,” she told Sara Davidson in an interview. “They become your family, closer to you than anyone you know. They kind of move into the house and take over the furniture.”) She had already developed a relationship with the characters and with certain images (“Those pink dawns of which Jack Lovett spoke”) surrounding them. For all of these reasons, Didion entered a version of herself into her novel—not her private self, herself as mother/wife/friend—but herself as writer and reporter. In the final chapter of Democracy, she acknowledges, “It has not been the novel I set out to write, nor am I exactly the person who set out to write it.” A process of change is implicit in that of self-discovery.

Didion the narrator discovers herself most fully by entering the life of Inez Victor, her double, her alter ego. There are several kinds of twins in the novel: Jessie and Adlai, the twin children of Inez and Harry Victor; Harry Victor and Billy Dillon, the inseparable political team of candidate and manager; and most significant, Didion and Inez, two women born three weeks apart whose paths keep crossing, who share the perils of celebrity, who are both given to reticence and emotional control in their personal relationships. The story of Inez led the narrator Didion to restored confidence and self-knowledge; in turn, Didion became Inez's closest friend and confidante. Neither character can be understood without appreciating the bond that subtly develops between them.

Democracy is a novel of correspondences: in addition to the correspondences between Inez and the narrator, there are numerous correspondences between the public and the private spheres, as well as a long series of literary correspondences (e.g., between Didion's Democracy and Henry Adams's Democracy; between the rhetoric assignment that Didion cites in chapter 2 of Part 1 and the structure of the novel itself). The most thematically central of these, however, is the parallel quest for life's meaning undertaken by Inez and the narrator, a quest pursued consciously and intellectually by the narrator and, until the end of the novel, fitfully and unconsciously by Inez. During the narrator's visit to Inez in Kuala Lumpur, Inez recurrently mentions coincidences of place that form a pattern in her relationship with Jack Lovett. “During the five days I spent in Kuala Lumpur Inez mentioned such ‘correspondences,’ her word, a number of times, as if they were messages intended specifically for her, evidence of a narrative she had not suspected.” Inez articulates the narrative primarily in terms of places and events; it is the narrator's rendering of the story, the novel itself, that will locate its real significance in the emotional and moral categories of love and loyalty.

For writer Didion the quest for meaning and the obsession with narrative are components of a single struggle. In the opening essay of The White Album, she wrote; “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. … We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Didion repeatedly describes herself as a writer who begins with a concrete image born of experience and then traces its path through her imagination. The narrator of Democracy can recover meaning and certainty only when she finds a form and structure in which to cast the disparate images of the gold-feathered bird, the pink dawns, and the tropical greens that dance through her imagination.

By following the images, painfully, faithfully, she ultimately succeeds in her appointed task. The images take on contexts, the contexts yield patterns, and the patterns yield meaning. One of the clearest patterns is of parallels and intersections between her life and that of Inez, together with a felt affinity between them. In 1960 she and Inez were both working for Vogue, and Didion first met Jack Lovett when he dropped in to see her there. (“I had known Inez Victor for perhaps a year but I had never seen her smile that way.”) In 1972 Didion is present when a reporter from the Associated Press asks Inez what she regards as the greatest cost of public life. Her answer is “memory.” When the reporter is puzzled, she elaborates, “You drop fuel. You jettison cargo. Eject the crew. You lose track.

Three times in the course of the interview, Inez repeated the single word memory in answer to the reporter's question, but when the story appeared through the Associated Press wire, it read, “Inez Victor claims she is often misquoted.” Inez was trying to tell the reporter that her experience of life was jagged and discontinuous, that its pressures often led her to lose a former “self” as one might drop cargo from a plane. Clearly, this reporter did not understand. Didion did, however, and from this time she takes up the burden of Inez's story, piecing it together from various sources, trying to give it coherence. She needs to do this not primarily because Inez's memory is deficient—in fact, many of her memories are sharp and clear—but because they are scattered visual memories, usually dissociated from emotion. Didion also needs to do it to recover her sense of herself as a writer; if she can find the true narrative thread that defines Inez's experience, she can recover her own conviction of life's existential meaning.

Part 1 of Democracy might be called Didion's book; although we learn something of Jack's life and character and much of the history of Inez's marriage, Didion's presence dominates. The reader is drawn by her elegiac feelings of transience and dislocation, her sense of drowning in disconnected dreams, her need to show us the “shards of the novel” she is not writing. (That would have been an easy novel, a “provincial novel of manners.”) As the book progresses, she gradually recovers a sense of purposeful writing—and the catalyst for recovery is her felt connection with Inez. A key moment in the forging of that connection is the interview in which Didion sits quietly in the background as Inez repeats the word memory. Didion had cited as one symptom of her malaise a lack of “patience with the past and interest in memory.” By the end of Part 1, her interest is mobilized, her mood raised, her narrative under way.

By the opening of Part 2 (Inez's book), she has charted a course (while still uncertain of precisely how to navigate it) that will traverse the love story of Inez and Jack from its inception through the crisis in Inez's family that brought it full circle. The markers in this course are events and feelings that she learned from observation, from Jack, whom she encountered from time to time in her travels, from Billy Dillon and Harry Victor, and from Inez. The chief obstacles are enigmatic qualities within the lovers: “I have no memory of any one moment in which either Inez Victor or Jack Lovett seemed to spring out, defined. They were equally evanescent, in some way emotionally invisible; unattached, wary to the point of opacity, and finally elusive. They seemed not to belong anywhere at all except, oddly, together.”

By the sheer persistence of her quest, which gathers such momentum that it takes her finally to Kuala Lumpur, Didion penetrates most of the mystery of Inez Victor. The woman who emerges shares certain traits with earlier Didion heroines, although in fundamental ways she is radically different. Like both Lily Knight of Run River and Charlotte Douglas of A Book of Common Prayer, she is tough and outwardly composed under stress: she remains calm when her mother abandons her in Honolulu, when Janet lies dying in the hospital, when her daughter runs away to Saigon in the closing days of the war.

In other ways, however, she represents a fundamental departure from her predecessors. Unlike Maria Wyeth of Play It As It Lays, who imagines that she can one day live a normal life with her brain-damaged daughter, or Lily Knight, who believes that she can have serial affairs without damaging her marriage, or Charlotte Douglas, who lives in sentimental reveries of her “inseparable” relationship with her fugitive daughter, Inez nurtures no obsessive illusions about herself or other people. She recognizes the essential character of the separate members of her family; she has a realistic grasp of what is possible and what is not. Although she believed for many years that Harry would become president, the belief was in the realm of the possible, to be discarded the moment he lost the nomination. Her realism, together with the courage that sustains it, enables her to survive devastating losses and still reclaim and ultimately direct her life.

She also has firmer self-esteem than her counterparts in earlier Didion novels, all of whom look to men to validate their essential self-worth. Unlike Lily, Maria, or Charlotte, she does not fall into bed with any man who wants her, for her self-respect renders her incapable of casual affairs. Although her love for Jack is profoundly sexual, her sense of decorum prevents her from acting on these feelings while she is living with her husband.

They did run into each other.

Here or there.

Often enough, during those twenty-some years during which Inez Victor and Jack Lovett refrained from touching each other, refrained from exhibiting undue pleasure or untoward interest in each other's activities, refrained most specifically from even being alone together, to keep the idea of it quick.

The affair between Inez and Jack is one of the most heroic and moving sexual and emotional relationships of contemporary American fiction. It is also quintessentially romantic, for it ultimately demands of Jack the risk of life itself and of Inez the courage to begin life over.

When Jack first meets Inez on her seventeenth birthday, the image of her—in a white dress with a gardenia in her hair—becomes engraved in his imagination. Their affair begins a month later, when he rescues her from a drunken date, but they both know they cannot look forward to a conventional future together. When Jack predicts, “you'll go off to college and marry some squash player and forget we ever did any of it,” Inez simply responds, “I suppose we'll run into each other. … Here or there.” Yet she forgets nothing that passed between them. When she marries Harry Victor in the spring of her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, two months pregnant with his child, she sends Jack an announcement with the words “Not a squash player” written across it.

From the moment of her marriage, her story becomes that of a woman defined by her role, the supporting role of wife to an ambitious public man. Plunged almost immediately into an active political life, she appears not to develop any core of identity, any private self. For the twenty years of her marriage to Harry, she had only two genuine interests—her twin children and a strong wish to work with refugees—a wish denied when Harry's political advisers decided that “refugees were an often controversial and therefore inappropriate special interest.”

For twenty years she played the role that Harry and Billy Dillon assigned to her. She was beside Harry as he rose on the tide of liberal politics—through his two years with the Justice Department, through the marches in Mississippi, through his three successful campaigns for Congress, through his brief period as senator and his failed bid for the 1972 presidential nomination. She did not protest volubly when Harry had affairs (“‘Inez, I'm asking you nice, behave, girls like that come with the life,’ Billy Dillon said to Inez after Connie Willis and Frances Landau.”). She went on speaking tours and fact-finding missions and to fund-raisers. She behaved precisely as the wife of a politician should—in his interests.

Several critics suggested that the Inez-Harry relationship was modeled on that of either Jackie and Jack or Joan and Ted Kennedy. These suggestions may have elements of truth, but the portrait of Inez could represent equally the wife of any American politician aspiring to national prominence, women who sacrifice not merely their time and careers but their sense of continuity and even of identity. The sacrifice is enormous, not only because they must suppress cherished wishes (Inez's wish to help refugees), but because they must shape a self that is public property, that is constantly on display. The middle-class liberal constituency of Harry Victor felt that they knew Inez, when in fact they knew only media images: “These people had all seen Inez, via telephoto lens, drying Jessie's blond hair by the swimming pool at the house in Amagansett. These people had all seen Inez, in the Daily News, leaving Lenox Hill Hospital with Adlai on the occasion of his first automobile accident. These people had all seen photo after photo of the studied clutter in the library of the apartment on Central Park West. … These people had taken their toll.”

Although faithful at times, the media image is just as likely to be false. When CBS Reports did brief biographies of the candidates' wives during Harry's 1972 campaign, its representation of Inez as a woman with a “very special feeling for the arts” and a “very special interest in education” was largely a fictional construct. As part of the same program, her sister Janet in a live interview presented a certainly glamorized and probably incorrect version of incidents from their childhood. While watching the televised interview, Inez drew up a list of the names of the Star Ferry boats that crossed between Hong Kong and Kowloon. At the time, Didion says, she thought of this cool detachment as “the frivolous habit of an essentially idle mind”; she later recognized it as a protective mechanism “for living a life in which the major cost was memory.”

Yet to reconstruct an exhaustive list of the names of boats one has never taken requires the capacity of a retentive memory. Didion is using “memory” in a special sense that can be illuminated by a passage from her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which appears in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. … We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” Inez has unconsciously divided her life into discrete segments, and with each transition she tries to jettison painful experiences from memory. She can recall from an earlier period material that is not emotionally charged—such as the names of boats—but she refuses to remember painful events such as her abandonment by her mother. This defense saves the anguish of emotional work and may help her to survive and to function, but it at times gives a hard edge to her character, and it consistently disrupts the emotional continuity of her life. The only character in the novel who penetrates this defense is her tenacious friend Didion.

Inez does not often take her emotional pulse, nor does she often look at her past. On the few occasions when she does, there is a striking difference between the happy memories and the sad ones. The positive experiences are recalled with strong emotional overtones. “She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pre Catelan in the rain. … She remembered Jessie crowing with delight and pointing imperiously at a poodle seated on a gilt chair across the room. She remembered Harry unbuttoning Adlai's wet sweater, kissing Jessie's wet hair, pouring them each a half glass of white wine.”

Her memories of tense, unhappy moments, on the other hand, are primarily visual, only faintly suggestive of emotion. After her discovery of Jessie's addiction to heroin, she and Harry run through three therapists before discovering the program in which Jessie is helped. “Inez remembered that the therapist was wearing a silver ankh. She remembered that she could see Jessie through a glass partition, chewing on a strand of her long blond hair, bent over the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.”

It is Didion who portrays for us the losses and trials of Inez's life, sometimes telling us the source of her information, sometimes slipping into the role of omniscient narrator. When Inez finds Jessie on the floor of her bedroom begging to die, she remains calm and dry-eyed, despite the fact that Jessie is by this time (June 1973) the only member of her family to whom Inez feels bound. Harry has alienated her through infidelity and hypocrisy, and Adlai at seventeen is a crude carbon copy of his father, without feeling for the girl he almost killed through reckless driving, without feeling for his sister, whom he calls “the junkie.” The bond between mother and daughter—in most Didion novels the strongest of emotional ties—is deftly implied in Democracy when Jessie calls Inez from the adolescent treatment facility in Seattle and reports that her job is “pretty cinchy”—“The bright effort in Jessie's voice had constricted Inez's throat.” As Inez's marriage moves slowly but steadily toward dissolution, she neither mourns nor rages; she simply prepares in the depths of her being to once again “jettison cargo” and “eject crew.”

In March 1975, as the war in Vietnam is moving toward the fall of Saigon, Didion and Inez share a parallel experience of “homecoming,” of returning after twenty years to the place each grew into adulthood. Didion is lecturing at Berkeley, feeling the personal nostalgia of teaching in the same rooms in which she had attended classes as an undergraduate and, with her preternatural response to public catastrophe, obsessively following the newspaper accounts of events in Southeast Asia. “In 1955 on this campus I had first noticed the quickening of time. In 1975 time was no longer just quickening but collapsing, falling in on itself, the way a disintegrating star contracts into a black hole.” Although she has asked her students to “consider the political implications of both the reliance on and the distrust of abstract words,” their politics are radicalized, and they interpret the fall of Saigon not as disaster but as its liberation from imperialism. Thus, she is lonely, cut off from them, for her mind is focused on the specific, concrete events of the evacuation.

At the same time, Inez returns to personal catastrophe in Honolulu, for her father has been imprisoned for shooting her sister and the Nisei politician who was probably her lover, Wendell Omura. Omura is dead, and Janet lies dying in the hospital. Like Didion, Inez is surrounded by people who not only refuse to focus on the specific events of the tragedy but deny that a tragedy has taken place. Her uncle invites her to have a martini, and her aunt suggests that she and Billy tour the ranch. Dwight and Ruth Christian have no affective response at all, not wanting the surface of life ruffled. At one level they are satirical characters; when Inez insists on trying to learn how and why the tragedy occurred, her aunt challenges, “Why air family linen?” and her uncle agrees, “Why accentuate the goddamn negative?”

More significantly, Inez's aunt and uncle are used by Didion to point to the absence of traditional Judeo-Christian values in the contemporary world. They are a family named “Christian” who display neither compassion, faith, nor charity. Janet's death, taking place the day before Good Friday, is in part a retelling of Christ's crucifixion. Although the insane Paul Christian casts himself as a martyr, it is Janet and Wendell Omura who are the Christ-figures. As Christ is abandoned by his apostles, so is Janet Christian abandoned by her family. During the twenty-four hours that pass before she is declared legally dead, only Inez cares enough to keep the vigil at the hospital. Her uncle plans a simple funeral (“the ashes to ashes business”) from which the Twenty-third Psalm is to be specifically excluded. “Passive crap, the Lord is my shepherd. … No sheep in this family.”

Didion invokes the Christian myth to dramatize the spiritual impoverishment of Inez's family. Only she truly mourns; when choosing the dress for Janet's burial, she cries for the only time in the novel, sharing her grief not with her husband but with Jack Lovett. Her grief breaks through her usual suppression of memory; she remembers Janet's wedding and Janet's childhood identification with their absent mother. In the flood of genuine emotion caused by Janet's death—and by seeing Jack again—her feelings for Harry are like debris on the tide. When he criticizes her for going to the hospital with Jack while her sister was dying, she tells him that their marriage is over. In recounting the scene to Didion later, she admits to a failure of memory on one point. “She had either said ‘Don't dramatize’ to Harry that Saturday evening or she had said ‘I love him’ to Harry that Saturday evening. It seemed more likely that she had said ‘Don't dramatize’ but she had wanted to say ‘I love him’ and she did not remember which.”

Because Inez typically expresses her strongest emotions obliquely—not once in the novel does she tell Jack directly that she loves him—the reader can be confident that she said, “Don't dramatize.” Yet she told Didion what had been in her mind, what she felt at the core of her being. This fact is a measure of the trust between the two women, of the powerful, mutually felt bond between them.

So strong is this bond that at times Didion's memory is indistinguishable from that of Inez, and the reader does not know how Didion “knows” the details of crucial scenes in Inez's story. One such scene takes place after Inez has said goodbye to Harry, when she goes with Jack to the bars where he hopes to learn of Jessie's whereabouts in Saigon.

Where Inez stood with her back against the jukebox and her arms around Jack Lovett.

Where the Mamas and the Papas sang “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”

The novel keeps returning to a single line of dialogue from this scene, Jack's lament that Inez is married to a politician of national prominence, “Oh shit, Inez … Harry Victor's wife.” Jack understands the likely personal consequences of his elopement with Inez. He knows that it will probably spell the end of his career as an undercover agent for the United States; he may also suspect that it will place his life in jeopardy. His willingness to suffer these consequences is the ultimate test and ultimate proof of love.

Of the cast of characters in Democracy, only Jack and Inez approach realization of the ideals their names suggest. Ruth Christian is perhaps the most ruthless character in the novel, concerned only with preserving appearances and avoiding all feeling and sentiment; Dwight Christian (unlike Dwight Eisenhower, who created unity among those around him) generates division by betraying Janet's husband in their business dealings. The bigoted and self-pitying Paul Christian is the opposite of the saint who welcomed all races into the Church. Harry Victor sustains only losses—the nomination, his wife, and almost his daughter. Only Inez embodies authentic Christian values, leaving her family on Easter night for a journey that will end with the sacrifice of comforts to a permanent, lonely commitment to serving the human community. Her description of her departure with Jack suggests resurrection and new life. “Inez said the 3:45 a.m. flight from Honolulu to Hong Kong was exactly the way she hoped dying would be. Dawn all the way.”

Love for Jack is service and loyalty; he spends much of his life waiting for Inez, protecting her from rain and from danger, respecting her marriage until she herself denies it. It is her decision to flee the charade of “the correct thing” with which her aunt and uncle are obsessed, to acknowledge the hollowness of her marriage by resigning the role of supportive wife and public figure. The break is final and permanent; once again she has jettisoned cargo and ejected the crew of her past. This time, however, she will find her own place, be her own person. She is not an Isabel Archer, Didion's “prototypic romantic idealist,” willing to remain imprisoned within a loveless marriage.

Part 3, covering the month of April 1975, is a transitional segment of the novel. Inez is in Hong Kong—for the most part alone, as Jack makes repeated trips to Saigon, both to gain strategic information and to find Jessie before the American evacuation is completed. The sexual component of their reunion is muted almost to complete silence, in keeping with the urgency of the occasion. Yet their relationship is tender and generous on both sides; for one entire night, Inez listens to Jack describe the madness that has taken over the leadership of the falling city, and when Inez expresses fears that Jessie may be lost, Jack promises to find her.

During the long days of solitude and waiting, Inez establishes a routine; she walks in the rain, reads American newspapers at the embassy, and spends much time watching Chinese children playing outside a nursery school. When Jessie's safety is assured, she realizes that her attitude and perspective toward herself and her family has radically changed. She feels separated from Harry and the children—and from her former “self”—by a vast emotional distance.

It occurred to her that for almost the first time in twenty years she was not particularly interested in any of them.

Responsible for them, yes, in a limited way, but not interested in them.

They were definitely connected to her but she could no longer grasp her own or their uniqueness, her own or their difference, genius, special claim. … The world that night was full of people flying from place to place and fading in and out and there was no reason why she or Harry or Jessie or Adlai or for that matter Jack Lovett … should be exempted from the general movement. …

Just because they were Americans.

Like Didion, who anguished over events in Saigon, she now feels a member, not of a family or nation, but of the world community. Not fully understanding why, she is ready to forgo the privileged status of the American citizen. Since Inez is unable to define her own “uniqueness,” Didion will attempt the definition by constructing the narrative of her life, probing its mystery.

In the summer of 1975, Didion travels thousands of miles to build her narrative—to learn events and their dates, to learn why Inez is in Kuala Lumpur and what happened to Jack. She travels to New York and to Martha's Vineyard to talk with Harry Victor and Billy Dillon and to Honolulu to speak with Dick Ziegler. She even talks briefly with Jessie and Adlai. But Inez remains inaccessible, politely but firmly rejecting Didion's repeated requests to see her—until the first week in December when she suddenly changes her mind and invites her to come to Kuala Lumpur.

Only to Didion does Inez communicate her memories of her sister and the details of Jack's death, as well as her view of their love affair. Didion is frustrated because Inez cannot remember those facts—places and dates—that are important to a reporter, but her memory is otherwise clear and full. For five days she recounts memories to Didion. She remembers her mother, slightly drunk, singing at her sister's wedding; she remembers that Janet as a child “had studied snapshots of Carol Christian and cut her hair the same way.” Her account of Jack's sudden death in Jakarta and her long trip with his body to Honolulu, where she negotiates an honorable burial space for him in the military cemetery at Schofield, is deeply moving, for this loss followed that of her sister by only four months. After burying Jack under the jacaranda tree, Inez flies directly to Kuala Lumpur, without seeing or calling any member of her family.

Part 4 of the novel gives us a later perspective on the narrator's meeting with Inez in December 1975. (Since Adlai, who was eighteen in 1975, apparently has his law degree in the final chapter—he is clerking for a federal judge in San Francisco—the span of time since Didion's visit to Kuala Lumpur must be at least seven years.) Inez has seen neither Harry nor her children since the spring of 1975, although she writes to them—most often to Jessie. She also stays in touch with Didion and Billy Dillon, whom Didion occasionally meets for dinner. (“In some ways I have replaced Inez as the woman Billy Dillon imagines he wishes he had married.”) In a piece in the London Guardian about Southeast Asia's refugees, Inez is quoted as saying that “she would be in Kuala Lumpur until the last refugee was dispatched”—in other words, her lifetime.

The relationship between Didion and Inez might appear to be that of priest and confessor, or psychiatrist and patient, for the confidences flow only one way. However, Didion needs Inez as much as Inez needs Didion; through telling her story, Didion confirms her essential “self,” the writer-reporter discovering meaning by understanding and ordering experience. The narrator senses rather than articulates the parallels of character and experience between herself and Inez. They are both realists with an irrepressible romantic streak. Inez has no illusions about Jack's marginally legal activities, yet her final vision of her relationship with him is a romantic affirmation. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.” Didion is a ruthless seeker of truth, yet she is captive to romantic images of dancing—Inez leaning against the jukebox with Jack's arms around her, Inez dancing on the roof of the St. Regis. When she hears that Jessie is writing a novel, she fantasizes that it begins, “Imagine my mother dancing.”

Inez is throughout the novel associated with images of height. At least five times Didion refers to the film clip of her dancing on the St. Regis roof, and Inez spends much of the novel on planes—during Harry's campaign, during the trip to Honolulu after her sister is shot, and, finally, her long flight in a small plane with Jack's body. These images enhance her heroic stature; by the novel's end, we can understand Jack's assessment of her as “‘one of the most noble’ women we had ever met.”

The narrator is metaphorically linked with images of height. She twice refers to herself as a tightrope walker.

Aerialists know that to look down is to fall.

Writers know it too.

Look down and that prolonged spell of suspended judgment in which a novel is written snaps, and recovery requires that we practice magic. We keep our attention fixed on the wire.

In the book's final chapter, she explains her scattered narrative method (introducing crucial events early, providing their context later) as “the way I tried to stay on the wire in this novel of fitful glimpses.” Like a dancer, a tightrope walker must practice art; however, the aerialist traces a linear pattern—the narrative—while the dancer moves with less tension in graceful curves.

Another metaphor Didion invokes, a traditional image for a poet, is close to that of Inez flying about the world in planes. In the beginning of the novel, she was the bird in Wallace Stevens's poem who sang “without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.” But the story she has told—Jack's heroic love and Inez's discovery of her own place in the world—has affirmed the possibility of existential meaning in individual lives even amid the holocaust of contemporary madness and violence. For the character who is called Didion, the meaning of the story resided in her bonds with the woman who shared her capacity for solitude, her sensitivity to color and heat and moisture, and her stubborn resilience. In the novel's concluding sentence, the gold-feathered bird has recovered poignancy of feeling and memory. “I had a sudden sense of Inez and of the office in the camp and of how it feels to fly into that part of the world, of the dense greens and translucent blues and the shallows where islands once were, but so far I have not been back.”

Stuart Ching (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2877

SOURCE: “‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Democracy,” in Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, 1991, pp. 180-87.

[In the following essay, Ching analyzes Didion's attempt in Democracy to create a pattern of meaning out of events during the Vietnam War.]

In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion describes the fragmentation of the nation's youth in the 1960s. The essay's title, which is also the title of the collection in which it appears, is from the last line of Yeats's “The Second Coming.” Didion claims in the preface to her collection that certain lines from the Yeats poem have “reverberated” in her “inner ear”: “the widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” These images are Didion's only points of reference, the only pattern that makes sense of what she is observing in the world.

The falling apart, the collapsing center, the spiraling gyre—the falcon out of control, unable to hear the falconer—are recurrent motifs in Democracy. The internal drama of the novel, the love story of Inez Victor and Jack Lovett, is set against the historicity of the Vietnam War, and Didion uses the pattern of the gyre to illustrate the simultaneous collapse into disorder of both the internal fictive world and the external factual world which impinges on the novel.

In his annotation to “The Second Coming,” Yeats claims that history, like the mind, takes the form of two vertical intersecting cones which spin in opposite directions: one narrowing, one widening. The end of an age is marked by one gyre reaching its greatest expansion and the other its greatest contraction. The revelation that approaches takes its shape from the movement of the inward gyre and begins its spiral outward, unraveling the “thread” of the previous age, “all things dying each other's life, living each other's death.” As Thomas Whitaker suggests, the apocalypse for Yeats is nothing more than “a full rendering of the opposites” within the world and the self. The revelation will be a “lightning flash” but paradoxically will strike in more than one place and occur for some time as the next era succeeds its antecedent. The next age, while reversing the previous age, still repeats past eras within itself. History, then, is cyclical. Yeats claims that in the present day the gyre is nearing its widest expansion.

The gyre as a pattern in Democracy becomes clear when one establishes the novel's time frame. The novel begins during the last weeks before the fall of Saigon in March 1975 and ends at an unspecified time after March 1976. Within this span, the novel moves back and forth between 1952 and 1975—although it does leap as far back as 1934 in another story that begins, “Imagine my mother dancing.” The novel, however, does not operate by the standard use of flashback. Didion once claimed that in her first novel, Run River, she wanted to have “the past and present operating simultaneously,” but she wasn't “accomplished enough to do that with any clarity” (Writers at Work). In Democracy, she succeeds in creating the illusion of simultaneity, and this technique adds to the elusiveness of the novel, thus heightening the reader's sense of disorder.

Within this elusive world, however, Didion hints that there might be “tenuous connections,” cycles in which the past is relived in the present time of the novel. In 1952 Jack catches lobsters in the lagoon off Johnston; in 1975 Inez washes her bandana in the same lagoon. In 1969 her children, Jessie and Adlai, play Marco Polo in the pool at Borobudur; in 1975 Jack drowns in the same pool. In 1952 Inez walks through the graveyard at Schofield; in 1975 she buries Jack in the same graveyard. In 1946 Carol Christian's marriage deteriorates, and she later departs for San Francisco on the SS Lurline; in 1975 Inez's family collapses, and she leaves for Hong Kong. Finally, the Pacific tests of 1952 are “another dawn in another year”; in 1975 Inez's flight to Hong Kong is an “eleven-hour dawn.”

Didion also suggests a cyclical history by alluding to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (“aloha oe” or “so it goes”), both of which link the Vietnam War to World War II. The Hawaiian setting of the novel is also significant to this connection, for Didion claims that “war is the very fabric of Hawaii's life,” and in both of her essay collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Punchbowl Cemetery joins the two wars, where graves from World War II share the same dormant crater with fresh graves for bodies arriving from Vietnam.

Didion establishes this cyclical history in the opening sentences of the novel—for here we see the syncretism of the creation myth, the resurrection, and the prophecy (by Yeats) of the Second Coming. It is March 30, 1975, Easter Sunday, when Jack says to Inez in the lounge of the Happy Talk:

The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

As in the creation myth, there is light. The allusion to Christ's resurrection (Easter Sunday) emphasizes the succession of eras from the Old to the New Testament; the latter rewrites the first. The allusion to the resurrection also marks approximately A.D. 30, near the birth of Christ, which Yeats designates both in A Vision and in his annotation to “The Second Coming” as the end of Greco-Roman civilization and the beginning of the Christian era. Similar to Yeats's vision of the Second Coming, the gyre is now at its widest expansion, and anarchy is let loose upon the world with the impending fall of Saigon.

The circular pattern of the gyre also appears in the imagery of islands. In the opening chapter, Jack mentions the Philippines and Johnston Island, the Aleutians and Jakarta, “ass end\s] of the universe.” The islands are points of reference without a center. As the narrator suggests, “At the end of the known world there is only water, water as a definite presence.”

Yet if the islands are considered central locations, they also become part of the imagery of disappearing centers. Islands, the narrator suggests, are mutable and subject to erosion: “When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it.” When an island erodes an atoll remains, a circle of reef without a center. Hence, a phrase from the last line of the novel, “where islands once were,” again signifies the vanishing center. In addition, there are other references to disappearing centers. During 1975, for the narrator (the fictive Didion) time quickens and collapses into itself the way a “disintegrating star contracts into a black hole,” and she can remember only splinters of poems by Housman, Eliot, and Schwartz. The news clips she reads in March and April are mere “dislocations,” fragments of an incomplete picture, and when she reads the breaking news of “falling capitals” in Southeast Asia she calls them instances of the “black hole effect.”

The lives of the characters also evidence this collapse. The two central characters, Inez and Jack, are not a fixed center for the novel. They are “evanescent,” “emotionally invisible,” “unattached,” “wary to the point of opacity, and finally elusive.” For the narrator, they become indefinable and seem “not to belong anywhere at all” except together. Neither the narrator nor Inez discovers Jack's real identity. The narrator suggests that a record of Jack's life would reveal “overlapping dates” and “blank spots.” Equally elusive is Inez. Temporarily obliterated from the narrator's memory, at one point she loses her individuality, developing the mechanical characteristics of media personalities: the fixed gaze, the reposeful countenance, the “frequent blink.”

Inez is part of a society of homeless jetsetters. The setting of the novel, then, appropriately sprawls across the globe from Jakarta to the mainland United States. The Victor and Christian families disintegrate. Carol Christian leaves for San Francisco. Paul Christian probably murders his daughter Janet. Adlai organizes a rally for the liberation of Saigon, while Jessie undergoes drug rehabilitation and later boards a C-5A transport to Saigon. Inez leaves Harry Victor and flies to Hong Kong with Jack. At the end of the novel the members of the Victor family are detached from each other, and the reader senses that this separation is more than geographic: Inez is in Kuala Lumpur indefinitely; Harry is in Brussels; Jessie is in Mexico; and Adlai is in San Francisco.

Beyond this domestic world, the historical world is fragmenting just as fast if not faster. In his paper “Internal and External Historicity in Joan Didion's Democracy,” James Wohlpart cites four major historical events that Didion uses in her novel. As Wohlpart observes, through the description of these events—the fall of Da Nang, Phnom Penh, and Saigon, along with the evacuation of a flight of orphans—Didion adds a “dimension of reality” to her novel, thereby meshing the internal fictive world with the external historical world. In addition, however, this fusion allows Didion to underscore the simultaneous collapse of both worlds. Thus, while teaching at Berkeley the narrator refers to the cities that were “falling” in Southeast Asia during the major offensive launched by the North Vietnamese. In the months of March and April the following South Vietnamese cities and American military bases fell (many without resistance): Ban Me Thuot, March 12; Pleiku, March 16; Quang Ngai, Chu Lai, and Tam Ky, March 24; Hue, March 25; Da Nang, March 29; Nha Trang and Qui Nhon, April 1; Bien Hoa, April 19; Xuan Loc and Ham Tan, April 21; Saigon, April 29-30. In addition, the narrator refers to Ken Healy, the pilot who on March 29 made an unauthorized flight to evacuate people from the Da Nang airport. In a mad scramble women, children, and South Vietnamese soldiers mobbed the plane, crawling into the baggage compartments and wheel wells and clinging to the undercarriage. Others who could not hang on after take-off plummeted into the South China Sea.

Both Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind, which the narrator refers to in Democracy, were real operations: Eagle Pull the evacuation of the American embassy in Cambodia on April 12 and Frequent Wind the evacuation of Saigon on April 29-30. The photo of John Gunther Dean leaving the American embassy in Cambodia actually appeared on the cover of Newsweek. In the background are two shadowy figures, one of whom the narrator of Democracy believes is Jack Lovett.

Furthermore, Jessie's flight to Vietnam on “that March night” corresponds with the evacuation of Da Nang (March 28-29) in which uncontrolled rioting broke out everywhere in the city. Women were raped, cars stolen, jeeps blown up, houses looted. General Truong ordered the tanks of the South Vietnamese army onto the streets to restore order, but the soldiers joined in the looting or were afraid to face the rioters.

In Democracy the telecast of helicopters vanishing into fireballs and ditching in oil slicks off the Pioneer Contender corresponds with the Pioneer Contender's role in the evacuation of Da Nang from March 28 to April 1. The reference to “orphan” escorts corresponds with Operation Babylift, which occurred on April 5 and 6 when U.S. officials escorted orphans onto airlifts out of Southeast Asia. And Jessie's flight to Vietnam illustrates the confusion in Southeast Asia during the last few weeks before the final evacuation of Saigon. For example, between April 15 and April 28, 277 whites and blacks without identification or passports who spoke English and presented themselves as Americans at evacuation sites were evacuated without question.

The narrator describes the situation in South Vietnam as one of growing hysteria and confusion, and the collapse of the moral center heightens this rapid disintegration. The Americans were pulling out, or as Didion defines morality in one of her essays, they were leaving the body on the highway for coyotes. For example, during the evacuation of Nha Trang, Americans armed with guns prevented Vietnamese employees from boarding evacuation aircrafts, and after the United States evacuated the American embassy in Phnom Penh, President Sokham Koy stated: “The United States led Cambodia into this war … but when the war became difficult, the United States pulled out.” Finally, after the last American helicopter left Saigon, hundreds of civilians huddled on the roof of one of the buildings, an emergency helipad, and waited for more helicopters to appear.

Thus, the fragmentation of the fictive world—Inez's flight to Hong Kong—concurs with the collapse of the external world—the fall of Saigon. For the first time, Inez feels detached from her entire family. She is “not interested in them,” unable to grasp “her own or their uniqueness.” While listening to the radio in mid-April, she thinks about Jack and wonders when “it” (the final evacuation) will occur: “The world that night was full of people flying from place to place and fading in and out.” Didion's time frame remains ambiguous, leaving the reader uncertain whether “that” night is the night in mid-April or the night of the final evacuation, April 29. Here the gyre is at its widest expansion in both worlds, the fictive and the historical, and no persons, not even those who believe they have a “home to call,” are excluded from the continual movement, the shuttling back and forth, the falling apart.

Rightfully, then, the novel is told in “fitful glimpses,” for it is shaped by the external world of fragments, clippings, and repetitions (in which the chronology is obscured because of lapses in memory), as well as by the international dateline and the mutability of islands. It is not the novel that begins “Imagine my mother dancing,” though Didion as character says such was her intention. In this case, life shapes art. Didion gives shape to disorder, while disorder shapes her novel. In the end, the options do not “decrease to zero”; instead, the scope of the novel widens, and the gaps in the text multiply. Didion finds a pattern, a falling away.

Some of these textual gaps are startling. Who is Jack Lovett? A certain “gray” area, a corpse in a body bag. How does Wendell Omura get on Janet Christian's lanai? How does the paperboy see the 357 Magnum tucked in Paul Christian's beachroll? Why does Inez agree to talk with Joan Didion? Are Inez and Jack's meetings purely circumstantial? Inez has to have a passport when she leaves for Hong Kong, doesn't she? As Didion asks, “What does that suggest? You tell me.”

Didion observes, reveals, and records, but she does not explain. Nor does she provide an answer to the questions raised by the Vietnam War. Yeats prophesies the future; Didion seeks the answer in the past. In the future, for Didion, anything can happen: “The options remain open here.”

Was there a cause for the Vietnam War? Has history turned full circle, the “past” serving as “prologue to the present“? And if history has completed a cycle, will it do so again? Does the individual affect history—“the long view”—or have people, as Harold Bloom suggests in his interpretation of Yeats, like the falconer lost control of nature? Are people, as A. Norman Jeffares argues, like the falcon being swept beyond their control away from Christ? Or are people falling beyond the mute voice of their homeland? None of these uncertainties is resolved.

Yeats attempted to account for some of the enigmas facing twentieth-century humankind. On the one hand, “The Second Coming” predicts the coming era: “Surely some revelation is at hand.” Yet it is not clear exactly what will come, for the beast—a “shape,” its gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun”—is not clearly defined. However, as Thomas Whitaker suggests, this paradox does not leave the reader uncertain, for the final lines of the poem, in which the rough beast “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” are spoken by one “who can maintain his questioning stance even when nearly overpowered by that image erupting from the abyss of himself and of his time.”

Similar to Yeats, faced with the inexplicability of chaos, the narrator of Democracy finds a pattern within history, but dissimilar to Yeats, the narrator of Democracy is not expectant. For the narrator as well as for Inez, there is “no revelation, no instant of epiphany.” When the reader anticipates resolution, or in the Yeatsian sense an apocalyptic “dawn,” the narrator leaves the reader without an answer. The novel is inconclusive, as the narrator indicates: “Last look through more than one door. This is a hard story to tell.”

At the end of Democracy, Didion conveys a feeling—not an answer but a “sudden sense” of flying into those “dense greens and translucent blues.” She leaves the reader with the image of the fallen center, the vanishing island. The narrator has “not been back.” As in many postmodern novels, it is the reader's prerogative to fill the space.

In summarizing John Clark Pratt's analysis of Vietnam literature, Timothy Lomperis notes that the literature of the Vietnam War does not add up to a totality. Instead, this literature consists of fragments that illustrate the multiplicity of the war: “Such a literature cannot divine the truth, but it can present fragments of it and get the reader involved in the quest.”

Given the method and mood of Democracy, I believe Didion would agree.

Carolyn Goffman (essay date Fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4030

SOURCE: “Beyond Reportage in Salvador,” in Connecticut Review, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 15-21.

[In the following essay, Goffman reviews critical commentary on Salvador and concludes that Didion's unorthodox journalistic style allows the reader to identify more fully with her and with the situation in El Salvador.]

In the eight years since its publication, Joan Didion's Salvador has aroused a full spectrum of response, from criticism for sloppy reporting (Pilger) to praise for ascending “beyond journalism” (Kiley). Readers looking for solutions to the problems in El Salvador complained that they searched in vain, and chastised Didion for not fingering precisely the flaws or assets of U.S. policy and not asserting firmly her conclusions about the future of the country. Other readers, however, have found in this book indications of truths more significant than ones which would dictate foreign policy. During her visit to El Salvador, Didion encountered darkness and terror so profound that she questioned her own attempts to convey the situation in words. In Salvador, Didion discovers and explores the inadequacy of language in official government reports, in conversations, in labels and names, and, ultimately, in her own desire to convey what she has seen. Salvador is Didion's attempt to express the inexpressible, to plumb the void of Salvadoran experience, and to voice, in her word, the “ineffable,” by putting into words horrors and fears that seem to defy language.

Didion approaches her subject as a journalist, with a journalist's questions on her lips and with her notebook always in hand. She believes, like a straight news reporter, that it is crucial to present objects and events as documents that recreate reality. Her extensive use of descriptive details reveals, but does not dictate, larger meaning, and allows the reader space to infer the ideas which she does not spell out. She uses imagistic detail the way a precise news journalist might use statistics, to convey concrete information to the reader. As a result, the answers she receives, or fails to receive, and the images she transfers to her notebook result in something that is both less quantitative and more profound than a standard news report.

Her details are sometimes called “vivid,” sometimes “symbolic.” In “Why I Write” (1976) Didion says she is drawn “inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible.” She claims that she is unable by temperament to think in “abstracts.” Salvador exemplifies this need to see tangible specifics, “physical facts.”

Mark Falcoff, in his Commentary review of Salvador, describes Didion's writer's eye as a “zoom lens” which gives an exhaustive and picturesque catalogue of all the vices of Salvadoran society. Didion herself, however, has said she is not a “camera eye” (Slouching). Rather, she looks for images that resonate with significance. Chris Anderson calls her method, in which she relies heavily on physical details to carry her meaning, “radical particularity.” W. Ross Winterowd, focusing on Didion's use of juxtaposition and irony, labels her writing “appositional,” and praises her technique of placing physical and anecdotal phenomena in the foreground.

Didion clings to concrete details as the only possible means of approaching the truth. Her experiences in El Salvador make her wary of other people's words. During her visit, she begins to doubt received information and people's narratives, and to trust only in the particular facts which she herself can observe. In El Salvador, language becomes not a means of communicating, but a means of deception and a way of obscuring the truth. Common expressions become code words for something else. De afeura, “the truth,” refers not to verifiable facts, but to reality as seen from a particular viewpoint. Early in her stay, when asked what she hoped to discover in El Salvador, she replies that “ideally I hoped to find out la verdad.” Her statement was received with approval: “… no one told la verdad. If I wrote la verdad it would be good for El Salvador. I realized that I had stumbled into a code … and \that] they meant the truth according to Roberto D'Aubuisson.”

Didion assiduously compares official reports and documents, both Salvadoran and American, with what she is able to observe herself. She finds the language of politics to be obstructional and obscuring. Proper names have only a situational meaning. Problems are solved by a name change. Didion notes that ORDEN, a paramilitary organization founded in 1968 as an information organ for the government, no longer exists, having been outlawed as part of the government's stand against human rights abuses. The State Department notes, however, that “some of its former members may still be active” under a new acronym, FDN.

Certain words are used regularly to scramble meaning. National reform movements are never discarded or ignored; rather, they are “perfected” or “improved.” Didion observes that “language has always been used a little differently in this part of the world,” and that an “apparent statement of fact often expresses something only wished for” rather than something verifiably accurate.

Later, Didion notes a government commandante who thought a group of American nuns and priests were French because the word used to describe them was “Franciscan.” For Didion, this is “one of those occasional windows that open into the heart of El Salvador and then close, a glimpse of the impenetrable interior.” If one could only comprehend people's misuse of language, then perhaps one could grasp why people are thinking and acting as they are; this understanding, however, remains just out of reach. Only what is seen, never what is heard, can be taken as fact.

Didion presents these linguistic muddles skillfully to reveal the mendacious, undermining effect of language itself. Didion points out again and again that in El Salvador language is used not to illuminate truth, but to re-invent it, to improve upon it, to circumvent it, and finally, to conceal it. It becomes impossible to distinguish factual from wishful statements. The official language is the language of advertising, with its obsessive insistence on making things look right. Hoodlums are turned into good guys as “part of the place's pervasive obscenity.” In the rhetoric of the obscene, accurate information is almost impossible to get. Numbers are used to express the inexpressible. Statistics add a patina of plausibility to the absurd. Things and situations are named and re-named a thousand times.

Didion nonetheless pursues information, asking questions that a conventional journalist might ask: What happened to the Hughes 5000 helicopter? Who is responsible for the latest killings? What are the identities of the people who have “been disappeared” and of the recent corpses? What changes in Salvadoran national policy have been made in response to U.S. intervention? What is the approach of the United States Ambassador, Dean Hinton? What are his perceptions of the situation in El Salvador?

Didion gets few consistent, satisfactory responses to such questions. She encounters instead “overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive.”

She nevertheless persists in asking a journalist's questions. In trying to pin down the facts of the helicopter crash, she asks President Magana, who had talked to the pilot, what had happened:

Was Colonel Castillo a prisoner? … Was Colonel Beltran Luna dead? … Was the bodyguard dead? … Where exactly had the helicopter crashed? … I looked at President Magana, and he shrugged. “This is very delicate,” he said. “I have a problem there … if I ask him \the pilot], he should tell me. But he might say he's not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I Don't ask.”

This, Didion informs us, is the standard development of a story in El Salvador. Not only do those in authority not share information with the press, but they themselves do not possess, or wish to possess, the information.

At last, a single body which she has seen lying by the roadside becomes the least equivocal fact of the day of the helicopter crash. And even that event, that particular murdered and mutilated body, remains without meaning: “It was agreed that someone was trying to make a point. The point was unclear.”

In Salvador, Didion attempts to organize her horrific snapshots into a pattern of meaningful pictures. The crystallizing images are a mixture of her own observations and experiences with anecdotes and stories from the war. The image of the Metropolitan Cathedral becomes the most meaningful “fact” that she can take away. The cathedral is the site of the assassination of an archbishop and of more than thirty people attending his funeral. The assassinated archbishop had refused to complete the cathedral “on the premise that the work of the church took precedence over its display.” Rusting structural beams, exposed wiring, raw concrete, and fluorescent tubes create a “vast brutalist space … that seemed to offer a single ineluctable message: at this time and in this place the light of the world could be construed as out, off, extinguished.” The cathedral, Didion says, is “perhaps the only unambiguous political statement in E1 Salvador.”

After presenting a detailed image or anecdote, such as the description of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Didion simply stops, leaving a gap or, as Anderson calls it, a “white space,” in which the reader may contemplate the image. These “white spaces” bear a large burden of significance. Some details are metonymic—they trigger associations for the reader. Other images are symbolic of a larger meaning. Didion does not spell out the symbolism, but, by stepping out of the way at the crucial moment, allows the reader to construct its meaning on his own.

Didion sets up, but does not dictate, the inference to be drawn by the reader. Is her presentation of “snapshots” objective reporting or a subjective illustration of values? Certainly, Didion's “I” goes beyond the intentionally neutral voice of the daily newspaper reporter. Her personal presence and her choice of metaphors (the Cathedral, for example, is a “bomb in the ultimate power station”) provide a “moral hardness” and a strong flavor of subjectivity to her work. She frequently anatomizes her own responses to the memorable images and scenes that she sees. In fact, at least one critic (McGill) suggests that in spite of the magnitude of Didion's “grocery list” of topics, the real subject of Didion's prose is herself and her own involvement with the subject and with the writing process.

Anderson calls this kind of involvement the “rhetoric of process”: Didion's commentary is “grounded in the moment of writing and in her efforts to think through a problem in language.” In using this rhetoric, she engages in “metadiscursiveness,” a process in which she layers discussion of the writing process onto her discussion of the subject.

Didion's strategy is to reflect on contemporary life from the standpoint of her own experience. She sees her subject in terms of herself, and does not attempt to abandon the framework of her own consciousness and be “objective,” the traditional newswriter's technique of self-effacement. She observes, records, and uses her presentation of the facts as she sees them as a point of departure for reflection.

Didion maintains her presence as human observer by describing where she herself fits into the scene and how she feels at the time. Perhaps more importantly, however, she draws attention to the writing process itself by referring to where she is as she writes and what her writing environment is like. Her comments highlight her role as writer. She remarks, for example, “As I write this I realize …” or “When I think now of that day in Gotera I remember. …”

Didion's presence on the scene and her commentary on the writing process do less to illustrate abstract “truths” than to tell the story of the search for truth. In this sense, her writings become true “essays,” attempts to arrive at the truth, rather than strict journalism, an attempt to express the truth through presentation of fact.

“Objective” journalists differentiate between what “happened” and what generally “happens,” and they seek to portray events concretely and precisely placed in time. Didion, however, finds “what happened” in El Salvador too slippery to be captured in words, so she turns to details, images, and conversations to convey a sense of what, in general, “happens” in El Salvador.

El Salvador is a place where “no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable. … terror is the given of the place.” Didion painstakingly describes the details of that terror: the body counts, the cases of torture and disfigurement, the incidents of detention and disappearances, the death squads, and the frenzied attempts to seek political resolution.

In her talent for detail, Didion does somber justice to the paraphernalia of terror: the vehicles, uniforms, weapons, methods of execution, and body-dumping sites. Incidents and objects multiply, their volume providing an unwritten commentary on the situation. Didion places quotations from authorities side by side with brutal facts of life and death. Wrenching descriptions of corpses and mutilations are juxtaposed with descriptions of the relentlessly optimistic posturing of U.S. officials.

Some readers have seen these juxtapositions as confusing, and have criticized Didion for being indecisive, for not being clear about her political position, and for presenting her material from a viewpoint that is too personal rather than from a traditionally “objective” journalistic stance. Mark Royden Winchell praises Didion's earlier non-fiction because she “wisely avoids … the conventional reporting one finds on the front page of a daily newspaper and the sort of punditry that appears on the op-ed page.” He argues, however, that Salvador contains too much of both of these. Didion is most successful, Winchell says, when she acts as an “anthropologist of strange political types,” rather than when she attempts investigative reporting or public policy analysis.

A few critics credit Didion with promoting a strong political stance in Salvador. Bernard F. Engel states that Didion concludes pessimistically that there is nothing the United States can do that would be useful at all: stepping up intervention or pulling out are both equally pointless. Frederick Kiley says that Didion claims that the absence of the United States would worsen conditions, but our conscience “prevents us from abandoning a murderous state of affairs that our presence only encourages.”

John Pilger sees a less nihilistic stance in Salvador. He says that Didion seems to be saying that more Americans would oppose U.S. intervention if only they were aware of the “criminal stupidity” of U.S. policy. Unfortunately, Pilger adds, Didion's “stylish prose” renders her basic message obscure. Pilger objects to Didion's failure to define political terminology, such as “Marxist,” “moderate,” and “left-of-center,” within the context of El Salvador. He accuses her of engaging in emotional “hand-wringing” rather than striving for a more intellectual and partisan analysis.

Juan E. Corradi suggests that Didion portrays the United States as a hostage to its own mythology, tied to the “last gasp of a shabby local power” which gets weapons and a fabricated political identity from the north. Corradi says that Didion implies that the United States, by failing to insist on a plausible political approach, acquiesces to the brutal tactics of those in power in El Salvador.

If Didion, however, is attempting to advise on or to dictate Salvadoran policy, her views are anything but overt, and are matters for interpretation rather than statement. She herself has asserted that she is temperamentally disinclined to thrust her views on others:

I am a moralist … \but] I tend not to impose my own sense of what is wrong and what is right on other people. If I do impose it, I feel very guilty about it, because it is entirely against the ethic in which I was brought up, which was strictly laissez faire.

As the 1980s drew to a close, more critics began to praise Didion for her literary accomplishment in Salvador, rather than regretting her seeming lack of firm political commitment. In particular, her idiosyncratic approach to the subject of war has received favorable notice. Lynne T. Hanley argues that Didion's point of view on the war is most effective because she takes a specifically female stance.

A woman's view of war, Hanley argues, is colored by the social situation of women. Women writers have not written as much about war as have men, but not, Hanley says, out of ignorance and humility (as might be said of men not writing about childbirth), but out of fear and loathing. Women writers of the First World War delineated not the war itself, but “its ripples, its side-effects.” With the Second World War, women were still not in the combat zone, but now the war zone was everywhere; women were not protected. With the advent of the Cold War, women moved to the forefront of danger as part of the mass of human beings under threat of nuclear annihilation.

As a journalist, Didion avoided, until Salvador, any “wars she \could] walk around.” Her reflections on Vietnam in Slouching Towards Bethlehem were centered in Haight-Ashbury, and her essays record not the war itself, but the culture the war spawned at home. In Salvador, Didion finally brought herself to stand where war was going on.

The war Didion experiences in El Salvador is not the type which threatens unclear annihilation or global conflict. Because it is a small war in an unimportant country, it is, in time, overlooked. Because it seems chronic, it engages the attention of the superpowers only sporadically. For Didion, however, a war—any war—is less a political event than an event conducted by identifiable people, men who are part of families or relationships, husbands, fathers, brothers, or lovers.

Before going to El Salvador, Didion imaginatively approached the alien terrain through the characters in the novel A Book of Common Prayer, in which she depicts a deadly encounter between a Central American war and Charlotte Douglas, a historically protected, determinedly optimistic norteamericana. Charlotte feels connected not with the war, but with the men who make war. Charlotte tries to remain de afeura, an outsider, involved not with fighting or violence, but with “the faces of men and women in light of its shell-fire.” Charlotte's detachment from events is impossible to maintain, as is vividly indicated at her death, when her body is tossed onto the lawn of the deserted American Embassy.

In A Book of Common Prayer, Didion asserts that war is waged by “people we know.” She cannot disentangle men at war from men at home, or when she gets to El Salvador, from the men sitting at a table next to hers at the Escalon Sheraton.

Hanley points out that it is not common for a novelist to follow a fictitious account of a place with a factual report, but Didion's achievement seems natural. Her experience of war had been only literary and imaginary; her inclination was to improve on these fictions. To get the facts (la verdad) about El Salvador, she had to penetrate both the myths about the country and her own desire to dissociate herself from war, to fictionalize events that seemed ineffable. El Salvador affects her not as a descent into an imaginary world of fiction, but as a harsh awakening. Hanley points out that Didion “clings to detail as though it alone convinces her she is in the presence of the actual.”

Didion's use of details in Salvador, Hanley argues, strips away the fictions which protect women from the actualities of war by demonstrating the death of romance. The photo albums with “plastic covers bearing soft-focus color photographs of young Americans in dating situations” contain not pictures of happy family events, but forensic photographs. The women of El Salvador wait for hours to pore over these photographs, looking for the bodies of their lost loved ones, and passing the albums from hand to hand without comment or expression.

Even the physical landscape harbors horrors beneath “soft-focus covers.” Didion finds that an airplane magazine still describes Puerta del Diabla, a much-used execution site and body dump, as “offering excellent subjects for color photography.” The terror of encountering death in the brilliant scenery is paralleled by the terror of encountering one's own death in every landscape, however bucolic, and every situation, however benign. Didion finds herself more than once “demoralized by fear.” The sight of the ubiquitous Cherokee Chiefs, filled with “reinforced steel and bulletproof Plexiglas an inch thick” is an ominous one. These vehicles, a “fixed feature of local life,” are popularly associated with disappearance and death. One evening, at an outdoor restaurant with her husband, Didion becomes aware of shadowy figures sitting behind the smoked glass window of a Cherokee Chief parked at the curb, and another figure crouched between the pumps at an Esso station. On another occasion, she pauses in the street to open her handbag and hears the “clicking of metal” as weapons are readied.

Not only does Didion's experience in El Salvador shake her faith in language and jar her sense of personal safety, but her confidence in her professional role also suffers a blow. She not only questions her approach and her ability to communicate what she sees, but she begins to lose her desire even to write about her perceptions.

At a dinner she meets Victor Barriere, the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, Salvador's dictator between 1931 and 1944. Barriere expresses approval of his grandfather's terrorist tactics, even as he shelters a young village boy “to keep him from getting killed.” Didion weighs this fact against her knowledge that one of the most active death squads now operating in El Salvador calls itself the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade, and realizes “that this was the first time in my life that I had been in the presence of obvious ‘material’ and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread.”

Didion experiences “personal dread” on other occasions as well. She visits “Central America's Largest Shopping Mall,” where she “became absorbed in making notes about the mall itself,” the muzak, the luxury grocery items, and the fashionable women:

… I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story.

But as she writes, she realizes she is “no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details.” As she left the mall, she noticed soldiers herding a young man into a van, “their guns at the boy's back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.” In the horror and darkness of what she sees around her, journalistic watchfulness and note-taking suddenly seem inappropriate, if not impossible.

During her experiences Didion's role as journalist/reporter frequently fails to sustain her. While her response to the absurdity of events may be at times an authorial silence—Anderson's “white space”—she also announces the impossibility of doing justice to the story of El Salvador, and instead tells the story of her decision to remain silent. Her rhetoric is a direct response to a central darkness in which language, however inadequate, is the only response to the apocalypse of El Salvador. A tension exists in the ironic relationship between her style and her perception of the apocalypse, between readability and epistemological doubt. The paradox of Didion's prose, Anderson points out, is its ability to project a sense of the apocalypse in rhetorically effective and engaging ways. In this form, readers respond not to dogma, but to the efforts of an individual like themselves struggling to come to terms with experience. Thus, a process of identification occurs between the reader and the writer. Didion creates identification by revealing her doubts and fears and her inability to synthesize what she sees—limitations which we share.

Didion's version of the inexplicable is somber, despairing, and fearful. In Salvador, she does not attempt to piece together the fragments of “cultural breakdown,” but relies only on the immediacy of her experiences. She presents us with vividly depicted fragments. Didion's “radical particularity” creates a sense of her presence, which in turn magnifies the reader's awareness of the events. Rather than present us with remote or abstract ideas, she plunges us into a concrete time and place, rendering issues and events immediate and vivid.

Paul Heilker (essay date Spring-Summer 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4141

SOURCE: “The Struggle for Articulation and Didion's Construction of the Reader's Self-Respect in Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring-Summer, 1992, pp. 26-36.

[In the following essay, Heilker examines the connection between Didion's literary style and the theme in Slouching Towards Bethlehem of the necessity of a society's grasp of language in the development of individual character and self-respect that lead to responsible adulthood and, ultimately, genuine freedom.]

However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The few literary critics who have examined Joan Didion's early nonfiction seem unable to see the forest for the trees. They focus so intently on particular stylistic or thematic aspects of her essays that they become blind to how these specific elements work in concert toward a more general end. A wider and more synthetic view allows us to see that Didion's style embodies and enacts her central theme in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Indeed, the style of these early essays forces the reader to engage in the same struggle for articulation that Didion herself experiences—and with similar results.


But what are the stylistic and thematic “trees” in Didion's nonfictional “forest,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Perhaps the most obvious quality of Didion's style is what Chris Anderson calls her “grammar of radical particularity.” Didion herself says that her “mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.” Her style reflects this habit of mind, Anderson notes, with essays such as “Going Home” consisting of little more than “a list of details, a juxtaposing of scenes” wherein the concreteness of the scenes carries “the burden of meaning.” Didion's method throughout her work, he says, is to be “a framer of pictures, an arranger of images.” According to Anderson, Didion's “habitual gesture as a stylist is to isolate the ironic or symbolic or evocative image and then reflect on its possible significance.”

Mark Z. Muggli also describes Didion's emphasis on the evocative particular, calling it the “poetics of her journalism.” Muggli says her dependence on the emblem, an extreme form of metaphor beyond the symbol, can be seen in her many memorable “timeless, static pictures.” These pictures, he writes, “reverberate with an intensity that suggests a world of meaning beyond the confines of a particular story.” Thus, he argues, “The emblem does not illustrate, or even represent—it evokes.” Muggli notes that Didion often places her evocative emblems at the end of structural units in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, giving the emblems “a white space in which to echo.” For example, the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which completes the first section of the book, ends with an emblem that reverberates in the following white space, suggesting meanings beyond that particular essay: The residents of a hippie apartment Don't notice a mother screaming at a three-year-old who sets a fire “because they were in the kitchen trying to retrieve some very good Moroccan hash which had dropped down through a floorboard damaged in the fire.”

Closely related to the grammar of radical particularity in Didion's prose, “in fact, ultimately a function of it,” Anderson says, is the second characteristic of her style, which he calls her “rhetoric of gaps, \her] withholding of interpretation and commentary at every level of language.” Anderson contends that powerful writing frequently relies on the deliberate omission of signposts and that “meaning sometimes carries across the gaps or silences in a discourse with greater power than words themselves can bear.” He concludes that “the rhetorical effect of gaps … is to draw us as readers into the text” as we “actively ‘assemble’\its] various parts.” In Didion's nonfiction, he notes, there are gaps between sentences and paragraphs, resulting from her deliberate omission of transitional words and phrases, and likewise gaps follow her short interpretive statements. In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” for instance, she uses “obvious sections of blank space to separate deliberately fragmentary and unrelated scenes, portraits, dialogues, and stories, creating a verbal collage.”

A third strategy of Didion's prose in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is what Anderson has termed her “rhetoric of process.” He notes that what little commentary Didion does offer is “highly tentative, grounded in the moment of writing, a function of her effort at that place and time to think through a problem in language.” Thus, he argues, her thinking and writing seem coinstantaneous, as if she were exploring problems as she writes, “allowing the various versions of her thought to stand side by side rather than canceling the abandoned interpretations or resolving ambiguities in fixed, balanced sentences.” Her prevalent parentheses, repeated predicates, multiple conjunctions, and cumulative modifications embody this sense of spontaneity, according to Anderson, with the appositive serving as “her characteristic modifier.”

Other critics also have noted Didion's reliance on apposition, which she uses not only at the sentence level but also at the essay and book levels. Whereas Anderson discusses its use at the sentence level, W. Ross Winterowd argues that, at the essay level, Didion's texts gain their coherence from “what Burke calls qualitative progression, in which ‘the presence of one quality prepares us for the introduction of another,’ not from the syllogistic progression that structures formal essays.” Thus, in essays such as “L.A. Notebook,” Winterowd argues, Didion creates “an attitudinally coherent essay” by presenting “a series of … images in apposition.” And at the book level, Katherine Henderson believes, “passages from different essays echo and balance each other,” the organization of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem thus giving us “point and counterpoint in a thematic richness that would be easily missed were they not collected in a single volume.” She notes that “certain fleeting images \in one essay] reappear in subsequent essays, where they are developed in more detail; these links serve to add shades of meaning \to the first essay] and to enrich the texture of the entire collection.” One need think no further than the reappearances of the hot Santa Ana wind to see how each appearance offers a redefinition and unpacking of its previous appearance as well as a balanced and echoing qualitative progression to the book as a whole.

Not only do critics tend to blind themselves by too narrowly focusing on these stylistic traits of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem but they also tend to obsess upon a particular thematic “tree” of Didion's: the fragmentation of experience. As Ellen G. Friedman has remarked, the most obvious element of Didion's sensibility is her “perception that the world is atomized, and it begins every book she has written.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem is clearly no exception to this, for its title and epigraph echo Yeats's contention that “the center cannot hold.” Several critics have argued that Didion's style grows out of this conviction. Anderson, for instance, says that since, for Didion, there is no final solution to the fragmentation of her life or of postmodern experience, her stylistic “obliqueness reflects her inability to word the wordless, to order what resists order.” Likewise, Mark Royden Winchell, writing of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” says that most of the essay is “devoted to an accumulation—a veritable montage—of short, fragmented scenes,” Didion shaping “the printed page in such a way that its very appearance tells us something about her story. … Thus the reading experience itself conveys a sense of fragmentation.” Indeed, Anderson says, all of Didion's stylistic strategies result from her “failure to word an experience which she repeatedly defines as apocalyptic, paralyzing, and finally inexplicable”:

In a world where the conventional connections no longer obtain, the form of discourse is reduced to particularity … and gaps. … Discourse becomes a collage of images, not a “narrative,” not, that is, an orderly presentation of judgments. … The recourse of a mind in the face of meaninglessness is to the concrete and singular detail. In the face of apocalypse the meaning of images becomes suspect and finally irrelevant; only the image itself, in all its irreducible physicality, has reliable shape.


In the overemphasis on Didion's perception of the atomization of the world, most critics blind themselves to other thematic “trees” in her forest. Friedman identifies the first of these neglected themes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem by pointing out a second part of Didion's sensibility, “her belief in what she calls ‘extreme and doomed commitments.’” According to Friedman:

Didion redeems the nihilism that a vision of an atomized world invites, allows meaning to penetrate her severe universe, with individual commitments that give purpose to the life of the person making them. The commitments are by definition “doomed and extreme” because there is no coherent order into which they may be absorbed. These commitments do not necessarily make sense in terms of the larger world: one is only compelled to make them.

Similarly, Katherine Usher Henderson notes that another dominant theme in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is “the attempt to integrate the past and the present.” In this respect, we must remember what Didion says in the preface to the book—that she is not “a camera eye,” not simply a recorder of irreducible images. Rather, she is an interpreter, a creator and imposer of patterns upon the fragments of experience. As Anderson notes, writing for Didion “is a means of discovery and problem-solving, a way of reflecting on what the pictures in her mind might mean.” As readers, he says, we witness “the struggle enacted on the page to understand the meaning of the pictures in her mind,” to integrate the past and the present, to come to an “extreme and doomed commitment.”

It is this struggle for articulation of meaning that is central to a wider and more synthetic view of Didion's method/message in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Henderson, discussing the hippies in Haight-Ashbury as described in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” notes that

most people become articulate because they need words to integrate their past into their present, and to struggle with both present feelings and future plans. These young people have turned their backs on the struggle through which one becomes an adult; thus they have no need for words to shape understanding, to define themselves as individuals.

This struggle for articulation, the struggle that Didion enacts on the page and that the hippies refuse, is the means by which one becomes an adult, shapes understanding, and defines oneself as an individual. Didion forces us as readers to engage in exactly the same struggle to articulate meaning. Her evocative particulars, emblems, gaps, appositions, collages, and rhetoric of process require us to integrate experience through words and thus to grow up, assume personal responsibility for our lives, and achieve character. Through the struggle, we gain committed self-respect, a quality that Didion clearly and dearly values and that allows us to sleep in the “notoriously uncomfortable” beds we must inevitably make for ourselves.


Didion begins Slouching Towards Bethlehem by describing herself as “neurotically inarticulate” and discussing her personal struggle for articulation. In “A Preface,” she writes that “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was the first essay in which she “had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart,” and that she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act.” “If I was to work again at all,” she realized, “it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” For Didion, the struggle for articulation in the face of this atomization, irrelevancy, and disorder is a monumental task:

\T]here is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.

Perhaps as a result of what she sees as her own inadequacies in the struggle for articulation, Didion clearly admires and praises those individuals in Slouching Towards Bethlehem who have imposed a meaning on the atomized world. Consider, for instance, her portrait of John Wayne, “The Duke”:

\I]n a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.

Just as several film directors “were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost,” Didion, too, pours into Wayne her longing for the very thing she so desperately desires: the ability to articulate her own code and live by it. In much the same way that both she and America are enamored of John Wayne, and for the same reason, Didion clearly admires Howard Hughes:

That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves\,] … tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is … absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific\,] … to be a free agent, live by one's own rules.

Again, we see the importance to Didion of imposing one's own meaning on the world, establishing one's own code or set of rules. However, in discussing Comrade Michael Laski, her third hero in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion is able to acknowledge a more kindred spirit in him than in Wayne or Hughes. She says she is comfortable with

the Michael Laskis of this world\,] … with those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void.

Her praise continues:

The world Michael Laski had constructed for himself was one of labyrinthine intricacy and immaculate clarity, a world made meaningful not only by high purpose but by external and internal threats, intrigues and apparatus, an immutably ordered world in which things mattered.

Although some might argue that her praise approaches irony, any such irony is a manifestation of Didion's envy that springs from her inability to completely articulate such “extreme and doomed commitments” herself. She does, after all, conclude the essay with an admonition: “You see what the world of Michael Laski is: a minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness.”

For those like Didion who keep private notebooks, for those “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” such a triumph as Laski's, however perilous, is clearly admirable. Like Laski, Didion, in her struggle for articulation, is struggling to construct a world, to “fill the void,” to make commitments and so to escape her dread. But in “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion realizes that this struggle must necessarily and always be waged in the midst of several paradoxes. On the one hand, she says, “We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing.” On the other hand, she realizes that “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” Moreover, the “implacable ‘I’” requires us to be egocentric and myopic, to skew reality in our favor. Earlier in the book, Didion notes that she has “as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality”; here, she notes that “not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” In writing in our notebooks, constructing our worlds, making our commitments, Didion implies, fact and fiction—reality and illusion—are equally assets and debits. A third paradox she uncovers is that while a notebook or constructed world is “an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker”—“your notebook will never help me, nor mine you”—“sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning.”

We must engage with all these paradoxes, must struggle with all these forces that would entrap us in inarticulateness, Didion suggests, because this is the only way we can define ourselves as adult individuals, the only way we can come to the essential quality we all need: self-respect. Self-respect, she writes, “has nothing to do with the approval of others,” “nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.” The ability to make “extreme and doomed commitments,” to make one's “own code and live by it,” “to be a free agent, \and] live by one's own rules,” to “exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral verve” is what Didion calls character, and “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” The purpose of all this struggling for articulation, of this effort toward the creation of self-respect, is “to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”


The tragedy of an American people who refuse to take on the struggle for articulation is epitomized in Didion's description of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Here, clearly, are Americans who ran away to find themselves and found no one at home. Their inarticulateness and lack of struggle for articulation border on the grotesque. And this tragedy, I would argue, is why “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was “the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made \Didion] despondent after it was printed.”

In the America of Didion's essay, vandals misspell “even the four-letter words they scrawled,” and the hippies' vocabulary consists of little more than sadly empty phrases such as “bummer,” “groovy,” “O.K. baby, it's your trip,” “hippie chick,” and “too much.” When Didion asks a pair of young women what they do, their responses are pathetic: “‘I just kind of come here a lot,’ one of them says. ‘I just sort of know the Dead,’ the other says.” In trying to describe his apparently fascinating ride in an outside elevator at the Fairmont Hotel, “three times up and three times down,” sixteen-year-old Jeff is utterly at a loss: “Wow,’ Jeff says, and that is all he can think to say, about that.” He is equally stumped when asked about his mother. “‘My mother was just a genuine all-American bitch,’ Jeff says. ‘She was really troublesome about hair. Also she didn't like boots. It was really weird. … It was weird. Wow.’”

Perhaps more disturbing than the general semantic shallowness and emptiness of this language is the stunning meaninglessness of a conversation in which Haight-Ashbury hippies apparently do somehow articulate themselves to one another:

“Max,” he says, “I want to say one thing.”

“It's your trip.” Max is edgy.

“I found love on acid. But I lost it. And now I'm finding it again. With nothing but grass.”

Max mutters that heaven and hell are both in one's karma.

“That's what bugs me about psychedelic art,” Steve says.

“What about psychedelic art,” Max says. “I haven't seen much psychedelic art.”

Max is lying on a bed with Sharon, and Steve leans down to him. “Groove, baby,” he says. “You're a groove.”

One of the principal perils of such monumental inarticulateness is the danger of being used by a language that one is incapable of using. For instance, Didion encounters a woman named Barbara whose characteristic rejoinder is “Groovy” and who tells Didion “how she learned to find happiness in ‘the woman's thing.’” Didion notes that “Barbara is on what is called the woman's trip to the exclusion of almost everything else.” In a striking contrast between the articulate and inarticulate persons' relative abilities to use (and thus not be used by) language, Didion writes:

Whenever I hear about the woman's trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin'-says-lovin'-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara.

The implications of inarticulateness, however, go beyond Barbara's blindness to the hippies' hypocritical sexism. Their inarticulateness also infects and undercuts their attempts at spirituality. The lyrics to a Krishna song that Didion includes, for instance, rather than inspiring awe for a deity are laughable and ludicrous:

Do you know who is the first eternal
spaceman of this universe?
The first to send his wild wild vibrations
To all those cosmic superstations?
For the song he always shouts
Sends the planets flipping out. …

Inarticulateness also prevents the hippies from achieving any of the political power to which they aspire. Lacking extensive vocabulary, they lack awareness and perspective; and lacking awareness and perspective, they lack any possible mechanism for change. At one point, Didion observes the Mime Troupers, in blackface and carrying plastic nightsticks, confronting a young black man after distributing “communication company fliers” that read:

& this summer thousands of un-white un-suburban boppers are going to want to know why you've given up what they can't get & how you get away with it & how come you not a faggot with hair so long & they want haight street one way or the other. IF YOU Don't KNOW, BY AUGUST HAIGHT STREET WILL BE A CEMETERY. (125)

And when Didion asks a young woman what she thinks of the Mime Troupers' actions,

“It's a groovy thing they call street theater,” she said. I said I had wondered if it might not have political overtones. She was seventeen years old and she worked it around in her mind awhile and finally remembered a couple of words from somewhere. “Maybe it's some John Birch thing,” she said.

In sum, it is the remembering and the repeating back of “a couple of words from somewhere” that most indict these people as “pathetically unequipped children.” Their refusal to engage in the struggle for articulation prevents them from becoming responsible adults. As Didion says,

They feed back exactly what is given to them. Because they do not believe in words—words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society's platitudes. As it happens, I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.


In the end, however, Didion knows that she cannot give them the words. Indeed, she would argue that no one could or should give them the words. As she says in “On Morality,”

Of course you will say that I do not have the right, even if I had the power, to inflict that unreasonable conscience upon you; nor do I want you to inflict your conscience, however reasonable, however enlightened, upon me. (“We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes,” Lionel Trilling once wrote. “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”)

Although we cannot give someone the words, although each of us must construct our own worlds, make our own “extreme and doomed commitments,” write and use our own notebooks, we can nonetheless prompt others toward the development of character. Didion says that “self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.”

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion's style—with its radical particularity, emblems, gaps, appositives, collages, and rhetoric of process—develops, trains, and coaxes forth the reader's self-respect. It requires each of us to integrate our own experience, to construct literary continuities with her words, and thus to achieve our own individual and “minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness.” In the end, while Didion's prose forces us to recognize the inevitability of our eventually lying down in beds of our own making, it also forces us to develop the self-respect that will allow us to sleep in those beds.

Walter Wells (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “Didion's ‘Los Angeles Notebook,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 181-82.

[In the following essay, Wells finds ironic Christian symbolism in Didion's essay “Los Angeles Notebook.”]

Among instances of the “supermarket” metaphor in American writing, the third section of Joan Didion's “Los Angeles Notebook”—a slight, self-contained narrative that may perplex at first reading—is probably the densest and most richly suggestive of them all.

This 198-word vignette links its modern characters and setting to a theme at least as old as that of Bunyan's Vanity Fair: tension between the earthly gratifications of the marketplace and those spiritual, presumably more rewarding values offered by submission to God's will. Most likely, Didion's little tone-poem-in-prose also takes some inspiration from John Updike's elaboration of that theme in his 1961 short story, “A & P.” For Didion (as for Updike, and others), the supermarket had, by the late 1960s, usurped the church's socio-spiritual role in America and become our primary house of worship—a worship rooted in modern materialism.

Key to this reading, I think, is the “loud but strangled” refrain of the large woman in the cotton muumuu, who repeatedly upbraids the bikini-clad narrator: “What a thing to wear to the market. …What a thing to wear to Ralph's” (one of southern California's largest supermarket chainstores). Such censure is, of course, incongruous, far less appropriate on the floor of a supermarket (especially in Hollywood, where bikinis, as the narrator tells us, are not “an unusual costume”) than it would be in church. The angry woman's proprietary impulse—and her sense of propriety—have been displaced from church to the market. This much is easily recognizable.

Less obvious is the symbolic movement through the brief story of the victimized narrator (presumably Didion herself, the vignette being ostensibly “nonfictional”). She journeys out from a private world redolent with Christian symbolism: It is a stifling “Sunday afternoon” (the sabbath, but well beyond time for church). It is “three o'clock” (the hour that Christ's suffering on the Cross was complete). “\T]he air \is] so thick with smog” (like incense in the Catholic sanctuary) “that the dusty palm trees” (symbols of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, here covered with the residue of time and decay) “loom up” for the narrator, a “rather attractive mystery.” In this symbolic context, the image of her “playing in the sprinklers with the baby” \italics mine] is unmistakably baptismal. With the child, she is about to undergo initiation in a new and very different church.

From her private refuge, the narrator, in her bikini, ventures into the public world of “Ralph's Market on the corner of Sunset and Fuller.” She refers again in the following sentence to that same intersection, the refrain clearly suggesting its symbolic importance to the vignette. In fact, that market and its frontal parking lot are still located, as they were in the sixties when the piece was written, at the corner of Sunset and Poinsettia, in Hollywood. Fuller Street is more than a half a block away to the east. But though Poinsettia might itself have brought connotations of Christmas and the Christchild to the narrative, the story by this point has moved into its more forbidding, public realm, where the geographically less accurate Fuller, with its implications of glut and satiation, is more appropriate to Didion's pessimism. Sunset, an obvious archetype for the end of things, is therefore a nearly perfect complement to Fuller for the author's metaphor on our post-Christian condition: Having left our spiritual roots behind, we who now worship largely in the new temple of consumerism are both sated and finished. (Remember, too, that “Los Angeles Notebook,” the essay in which the supermarket vignette appears, is itself a part of Didion's book-length homage to Yeats's apocalyptic vision in “The Second Coming.”

With incisive irony, Didion makes clear that the crass antagonist in the latterday temple is dressed no less informally than the narrator—only less scantily. Sexual repression, long a puritan concomitant, continues to energize devotees of the new, consumer-oriented worship place. The large woman is a paradigm of what we would now call the “religious right.” Her “cotton muumuu” serves, moreover, as a pseudo-vestment, the sleeve of which—in a sidelong jab at modern manhood—Didion depicts the woman's husband “pluck\ing] at,” like a timid acolyte.

The angry woman begins her shopping-basket assault, aptly, “at the butcher counter,” where the narrator, trying to ignore her, contemplates “a plastic package of rib lamb chops.” While a nineties sensibility might read intimations of abortion in the image, it seems to me more an ironic allusion to the Blood of the Lamb. In the modern temple, even that Blood in which Christians cleanse themselves of sin (Rev. 7:14) has been denatured under plastic wrapping.

The obnoxious woman then follows the narrator “all over the store, to the Junior Foods, to the Dairy Products, to the Mexican Delicacies” (as though through mock-Stations of the Cross), “jamming \her] cart whenever she can.” The intimidation ends only when the narrator of Christian origin (and modern mores) leaves the market, having been rudely initiated into the vacuous and self-righteous new post-Christian spirituality of St. Ralph's, the High Church of Modern Consumerism.

It is a supremely compressed and loaded little parable.

Vivian Gornick (review date December 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Prose of Nothingness,” in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIV, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Gornick comments on the emptiness in The Last Thing He Wanted noting that Didion's fiction appears to cover the same ground repeatedly without adequate development.]

Few writers move back and forth between the essay and the novel with equal skill and talent. Joan Didion is one of them. In Didion, anxiety is an organizing principle that has resulted in some of the finest essays in American literature, and at least one enduring novel, Play It As It Lays.

It's in the essays, I believe, that the anxiety serves best. When a subject beyond the self must be intersected with—migraine headache or the Los Angeles water system—Didion's gorgeous nerves are brought under brilliant control. In the novels, however—where atmosphere is the subject—they're always in danger of becoming the story, rather than serving it. Here, the sentence structure itself is injected with existential nervousness; it becomes the very thing the writer has on her mind. Of Didion's fiction it can truly be said that the shape of the paragraph is its content, the arrangement of detail in a sentence the burden of meaning in that sentence.

For Didion, modern life is an assault upon the spirit, against which we remain as undefended as children. Undefended, we become depressed, and then malevolent. The men in her novels are nihilists whose brutality is a mark of their suffering. The women are nerveless, hollowed-out creatures who stare wide-eyed into the treachery of their men, and do not turn away. Floating in unanchored space, arrested in emotional time, they are in thrall to spiritual loss.

This is the literature of the walking wounded. Didion's contribution to this literature is a rhythmic use of ellipsis devoted to capturing the taste and feel of permanent interior hell. Volumes of unspoken message are trapped inside her tight-lipped juxtapositions, her mysterious transitions, her extraordinary sentence repetitions; but it is in the construction of paragraphs that her purpose and talent are put to high use.

We now have five or six hundred pages of these paragraphs. Any one of them will do to illustrate the point. Here is one, picked at random, from A Book of Common Prayer. It describes her protagonist in a state of severe depression:

She would shut her ears.

She would watch Marin, numbly, from the usual great distance.

She would hang on by the usual routines, fill in whole days by the usual numbers.

The problem was that Charlotte did not know that any of this was “usual.”

Charlotte had no idea that anyone else had ever been afflicted by what she called “the separateness.”

Two things are noteworthy here. One, Didion's trick of separating the sentences of an ordinary paragraph into five. Two, forcing us to pay attention to a grown woman who does not know that other people suffer as she does. With these two techniques in hand (and both are techniques), Didion accomplishes something remarkable. The prose of nothingness is given texture, inner distance enriched, etherizing numbness lent dimension. Armed with this paragraph, Didion pursues a strong, simple composition—that of the Innocent in a corrupted Promised Land—with a singlemindedness no other American writer has equaled.

Ten years ago Didion turned away from novel writing to apply her intractable vision to non-fiction reports on the sinister politics of places like El Salvador and Miami. Absorbed to the point of obsession, she followed closely the shameful and frightening disclosures of the complicated gangsterism behind United States policy in Latin America. To some readers she appeared a conservative writer turning liberal; others, myself included, thought her a conservative turning libertarian. In these pieces Didion seemed mesmerized by the disintegration before her very eyes of an America it had suited her to think of as innocent; an America characterized by a code of honor that, when outraged by criminality in high places, becomes the necessary lost Eden; John Wayne's America, in fact. For her, the US in Nicaragua had become the kind of drama that haunts a novelist's soul; it was inevitable that it would transform into yet another fiction.

The story is told, as always, in fragments, flashbacks and the famous sentence repetitions meant to underline and heighten Didion's ever-present sense of emotional mystery. I'm not sure I've got it quite right, but here, I think, is the plot of The Last Thing He Wanted:

Elena McMahon, aimless and disaffected, leaves her Hollywood producer husband in California, plays journalist at the Washington Post for a minute, then drifts down to Florida to see her father, Dick McMahon, a man who “does deals”—that is, supplies whatever is wanted to any outlaw who'll pay. Now old and sick, he tells Elena that he's made the deal of his life, he's owed a million dollars, but he can collect only if he goes down to Costa Rica himself. Elena—the emptiness in her accumulating steadily on the page—says she'll go for him. In Costa Rica she waits in a hotel room for further instructions; when they come she is told she must fly to an island that in the novel remains unnamed. Asking for her passport at the desk she is gaslighted, told it has already been returned to her. She argues but when she's given another passport, this one in the name of Elise Meyer, she accepts it, gets on the plane, and flies to the island.

This, of course, is the central detail of the novel: Elena has agreed to “disappear.” The island will turn out to be all covert American—military, government, CIA—not a real person in sight. The whole world has “disappeared.” It's all an arms deal, and anyone or anything that gets in the way is to be eliminated. In fact, Dick McMahon was being set up for elimination. Instead, his daughter wanders in and she gets it. But not before her life (so to speak) intersects with that of Treat Morrison, a State Department “crisis junkie,” himself as opaque a creature as Elena.

All this we get from the narrator, a journalist who's been writing a piece on Morrison, and is giving us the story behind the one we read in the papers. This narrator is the Joan Didion who long ago moved the Maria Wyeth of Play It As It Lays out of Hollywood and down to Latin America, where she renamed her Charlotte Douglas in A Book of Common Prayer, then Inez Christian in Democracy. Now called Elena McMahon, she remains as she has always been—with no change in character or destiny—a childlike woman of monumental depression whose inability to “do” life is once again being mythicized.

Elena's dreams were about dying.

Elena's dreams were about getting old.

Nobody here has not had (will not have) Elena's dreams.

We all know that.

The point is that Elena didn't.

The point is that Elena remained remote most of all to herself, a clandestine agent who had so successfully compartmentalized her operation as to have lost access to her own cutouts.

In this novel she is joined in “the separateness” by the hired gun from the State Department:

Treat Morrison studied her for a moment. “I read you,” he said then.

“I read you too,” she said.

Of course she did, of course he did.

Of course they read each other.

Of course they knew each other, understood each other, recognized each other, took one look and got each other, had to be with each other, saw the color drain out of what they saw when they were not looking at each other.

They were the same person.

They were equally remote.

Joan Didion has been writing these paragraphs for a good 25 years now, but here, in The Last Thing He Wanted, a great weariness over them seems to have set in; she can hardly pay attention to the stick figures behind the sentence structure; is too bored to put clothes on them; says openly through her narrator,

The persona of “the writer” does not attract me. As a way of being it has its flat sides … I \am] increasingly interested only in the technical, in how to lay down the AM-2 aluminum matting for the runway, in whether or not parallel taxiways and high-speed turnoffs must be provided, in whether an eight-thousand-foot runway requires sixty thousand square yards of operational apron or only forty thousand …

The novel feels not so much about the emptiness, as itself emptied out; as though the situation has become a piece of experience that has gone long unreviewed, or, perhaps, a piece of experience that is still alive in the writer but has been mulled over once too often without having sufficiently clarified. They can look the same.

Didion is one of the most interesting writers in America: a writer whose prose continues to lure readers high and low with its powerful suggestiveness. Yet her work does not grow larger. In book after book—reportage as well as fiction—she repeats a vision that does not materially advance: it neither widens nor deepens.

Something drives her to these repetitions; something trapped, perhaps, in the writing itself, waiting to consolidate, to get itself born. She reminds me sometimes of Jean Rhys, who had an idea about men, women and passion that she worried like a dog with a bone. Rhys wrote what felt like the same novel again and again, and the reading world grew tired of her repetitions. Then, at an advanced age and only a few years before she died, she produced Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel that pulled out the deeper knowledge buried in the previous writing, justifying brilliantly all that had gone before. Perhaps Didion, too, is preparing the novel that will one day make new and marvelous use of “the remoteness,” leaving us with a clarified meaning only this writer could tease out of this particular sense of things.

Thomas Filbin (review date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: “Familiar Capability,” in Hudson Review, Vol. L, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 159-60.

[In the following review, Filbin praises Didion's evocation of events in America during the 1980s in The Last Thing He Wanted.]

Joan Didion's latest novel \The Last Thing He Wanted] follows the shadowy excesses of American foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, where the truth was, of course, far stranger than fiction. Even Tom Clancy would not have invented the Iran-Contra affair, or someone as wildly improbable as Oliver North, who considered himself heroic, religious, and patriotic all the time he subverted the law. A man whose principles allow him to behave as if he had none would have left Émile \Zola] salivating as he scurried for his pen.

Didion's opening to the book reflects on the fast times of the 1980s, the internationalization and valorization of everything. “For a while we felt rich and then we didn't … time was money … Get the big suite, the multi-line telephones … download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going … work the management plays … nod out on the noise.”

The frenetic pace of the deal, and everyone had a deal, charged the atmosphere then. But the international intrigues were found out and the stock market tanked; prosperity hadn't dry paint before it went staggering into Chapter Eleven. Didion's dead-on prose captures the tension and treachery from the first moment.

The book's subject, Elena McMahon, is a political journalist covering the 1984 presidential campaign who leaves her job to go to Florida where her father, a semi-retired arms dealer, is dying. He stands ready to make a fortune on one last shipment, and Elena takes his place aboard the private aircraft ostensibly carrying auto parts to Costa Rica. The plane arrives instead on an unnamed island in the Caribbean and delivers the weapons, but she is left cooling her heels for payment. She stays on the island and falls blindly into a web that includes mysterious middlemen and an American diplomat named Treat Morrison.

Told with deep breaths in a chiaroscuro style, the tale focuses on Elena's emotions and perceptions which stand in sharp contrast to the doublespeak and obliteration of facts practiced by everyone else. Governments are fronts, foreign policy is covert, and there is a mountain of greenbacks in play. Elena's inevitable murder suggests that the individual is unable to compete against a syndicate of corporate and governmental wickedness. Villains used to work free lance and ride into town alone, now they have a company car, forged passports, a gold card, lawyers, guns, and money.

Didion grasps the deceptions of language practiced by the official spokesperson, who uses words not to reveal and clarify, but to distract and obscure. “Conflict resolution,” “incident prevention,” and “the events in question” substitute for counterinsurgency, illegal intervention, and assassination. Writing like this drags truth out onto the stage with lighting effects that force us to consider the horror of using reason to justify its opposite.

Wayne Koestenbaum (review date 3 April 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Pink Hotel,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 7, April 3, 1997, pp. 20-21.

[In the following review, Koestenbaum discusses the notion of “hotel prose”—writing that elicits alienation and transience—finding Didion to be “our finest living avatar” of such writing.]

I began this feuilleton in a hotel room, the Hyatt Regency in Houston, Texas: a Didionesque locale. (Caryl Phillips once told me that he liked to write his books in faraway hotel rooms. I admire that. It brings to mind Janet Flanner at the Ritz and James Schuyler at the Chelsea.) Joan Didion has often noted transiency's allure, a writer's necessary alienation from fixed address. My favourite Didion passage of all time, from The White Album, typifies what I will call ‘hotel prose’:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
bag with:
     toothbrush and paste
     Basis soap
     razor, deodorant
     aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax
     face cream, powder, baby oil
mohair throw
two legal pads and pens
house key
This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood
during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled
me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the
deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard and stockings, I could
pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line
flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air
 conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same hotel

Didion's emotional signature is lack of affect—indifference. Indifference characterises hotel prose, which never indulges the pathetic fallacy. (The wallpaper does not embody my melancholy.) Hotel prose captures life after the stiff, etherising drink has been downed.

Here is the critic Bruce Hainley, writing in December 1996's Artforum, on Didion and hotels:

My interest in \Didion's heroine] and her hotel life, a state of mind, has little to do with some misguided romantic notion of living such a life myself. But I find sense and a kind of solace in Didion's daring to show that the ‘game’, the ‘plot’, the ‘set-up’, the ‘whatever you want to call it’ operates around a woman's transit from one hotel to another, from the Intercon to the Surfrider to the Aero Sands Beach Resort.

A piece of hotel prose, also from The White Album, shows Didion at her indifferent best:

1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, aged three. She is blond and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected. In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.

A hotel may be luxurious; it may also be impoverished. Didion's characters stay in luxury hotels but also middle-of-the-road establishments. No safe haven, a hotel is a cesspool that sucks the guest down into anonymity. In a hotel, social class vacillates. Is the guest upwardly or downwardly mobile? What punishments will the concierge exact? Despite privilege, a hotel resident may choose not to lift herself from dolour, or she may check into the wrong hotel, for the wrong reasons.

In Didion's new novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, a woman with plenty of ‘options’ checks into the wrong hotel. At her disposal she has

entire archipelagos of neutral havens where an American woman of a certain appearance could have got off the plane and checked into a promising resort hotel (a promising resort hotel would be defined as one in which there were no Special Forces in the lobby, no armoured unmarked vans at the main entrance) and ordered a cold drink and dialed a familiar number in Century City or Malibu and let Wynn Janklow and the concierge work out the logistics of re-entry into her previous life.

Just think about it: this was not a woman who on the evidence had ever lacked the resources to just get on a plane and leave.

So why hadn't she.

Like Gertrude Stein, her fellow Californian, Didion puts a period where a question mark belongs, and thus turns ordinary speech into dour, frightening pronouncement, heavy with portent.

What is a hotel? An ignored symbol. As Didion writes in The White Album, ‘the Royal Hawaiian is not merely a hotel but a social idea, one of the few extant clues to a certain kind of American life.’ For this life, Didion feels nostalgia. That is why her characters stay in fancy hotels, despite the dismal fates that accompany room service. In hotels, the Didion heroine, like Alice, falls down the rabbit hole into numb lawlessness, an ‘outland’ condition (recall Tom Outland in Willa Cather's A Professor's House).

In literature, it is more delightful to lose a self than to gain one. In Play It As It Lays (1970) a guest at a good hotel glamorously descends into dementia:

The room was painted purple, with purple Lurex threads in the curtains and bedspread. Because her mother had once told her that purple rooms could send people into irretrievable insanity she thought about asking for a different room, but the boy had unnerved her. She did not want to court further appraisal by asking anyone for anything. To hear someone's voice she looked in the telephone book and dialed a few prayers.

Today, the woman in the hotel room might dial a phone sex service. (Didion's novels, filled with contemporary argot, will either date or acquire time-capsule immortality.)

In The Last Thing He Wanted, a tersely beautiful work whose plot I will not attempt to summarise, Didion gives a definitive portrait of existence on the margins of permanent address. The heroine clocks a lot of time in hotel rooms, but the writer's point of view also emanates from hotels. Such a writer has been sundered from nation, though nation may rise to claim her at the last, dire minute. Such a writer has no identity, and is, like Keats, continually filling in for others, whose stronger selves press upon her imagination. Such a narrator may be classified as paranoid, but her fear is justified: its fruit is ecstatic communion with the reader, and with the landscapes she passes through.

I am not in love with Didion's overt subject-matter: politics, espionage, under-cover operations. Serious stuff. Who am I to wish she would write instead about her private languor? Her novels covertly depict purple anomie: the wish—usually a distraught, remote woman's—to escape her life. The heroine of The LastThing He Wanted, Elena McMahon, gives up her identity—against or with her will—and enters a shady kingdom of deals and assassinations. I haven't gone underground, haven't misplaced my passport, haven't been kidnapped, and yet I recognise her description of wasted, savoured time:

At no later than ten minutes past seven on each of those mornings she put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and began to walk. She walked five miles, seven miles, ten, however long it took to fill two hours exactly. At no later than ten minutes past nine she had two cups of coffee and one papaya, no more. She spent the two hours between ten and noon downtown, not exactly shopping but allowing herself to be seen, establishing her presence. Her routine did not vary: at the revolving rack outside the big Rexall she would pause each day to inspect the unchanging selection of postcards. Three blocks further she would stop at the harbour, sit on the low wall above the docks and watch the loading or unloading of one or another inter-island freighter. After the Rexall and the harbour she inspected the bookstore, the pastry shop, the posters outside the municipal office. Her favourite posters showed a red circle and diagonal slash superimposed on an anopheles mosquito, but no legend to explain how the ban was to be effected.

Small rituals fix a wandering identity. Stoic breakdown is Didion's territory, as it was Jean Rhys's, Colette's and, now, Lydia Davis's—connoisseurs of isolation and erotic obsession. Rhys's heroines suffer because of accidents and psychological peculiarities (unlucky throws of the dice), while historical chaos causes Didion's characters to view the world in fragments. Are Didion's themes larger than Rhys's, or has Didion simply turned Rhysian materials into political allegory? Didion paints sweetly corrupt grifters in sentences so remote and cold and perfect they approach cruelty, the music of the thin blue line between catatonia and competence—that twilit state when one is ‘coping’, but only barely.

It is no surprise that one of Joan Didion's most attentive readers has been Elizabeth Hardwick, whose own work, like Didion's, is never merely essay or novel, even if, for the occasion, the work must pretend to be one or the other. Elizabeth Hardwick's review of a theatre production is as much a novel as her under-recognised Sleepless Nights (a grand specimen of hotel prose) is an essay; Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted is as much an essay on nationality as it is a novel. Hardwick calls it a ‘thriller’. What thrills in The Last Thing is not the plot but the slow disintegration of the protagonist's self, a process to which the Didion hotel prose remains entirely indifferent: her prose has its own duties to perform and will not pay close attention to the heroine. The prose's task is stupefaction; this stupor may mirror the emotional state of the protagonist, but that is only a coincidence. The prose mimics catatonia because fugue states are the foundation of any prose that wishes to be contemporary. Maurice Blanchot's novels might have been morbidly self-referential because his higher metaphysics demanded it, but secretly his sentences did the self-mutilating (autocoprophagic) Twist because he, like Didion, walked in fear of seeming out of date and knew that a contemporary sentence must be rigorous and—like a hotel room—anonymously allegorical.

On the first page of The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion calls this hotel sensibility ‘weightlessness’: ‘Weightlessness seemed at the time the safe mode. Weightlessness seemed at the time the mode in which we could beat both the clock and affect itself.’ Fiercely husbanded sentences sanction her aesthetic allegiance to drift, eddy and error. The sentence is the hotel room in which the disaffected consciousness stays for the duration.

Elena McMahon accidentally becomes assistant manager at a deadbeat hotel/motel called the Surfrider. Even when it has few guests, Elena stays on. A nearly empty hotel is the quintessential hotel, as a folded movie studio is more haunted, and more Hollywood, than a bustling, productive one. As Didion describes Elena at the Surfrider, I hear echoes of Wide Sargasso Sea's tropic liminality:

The Surfrider's Olympic-length pool had been drained. Whatever need there had been for an assistant manager had contracted, then evaporated. Elena McMahon had pointed this out to the manager but he had reasonably suggested that since her rooms would be empty in any case she might just as well stay on, and she had. She liked the place empty. She liked the way the shutters had started losing their slats. She liked the low clouds, the glitter on the sea, the pervasive smell of mildew and bananas. She liked to walk up the road from the parking lot and hear the voices from the Pentecostal church there. She liked to stand on the beach in front of the hotel and know that there was no solid land between her and Africa.

Why Africa? If Elena wishes to trade American identity for African placelessness, I wonder if primitivist fantasies underlie her willed vertigo.

At the end of the novel, the narrator recalls a conference ‘sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, at which eight members of the Kennedy Administration gathered at an old resort hotel in the Florida Keys to reassess the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis’. In its own, individual paragraph she gives us the following piquant information:

The hotel was pink.

Other than Didion, only Rhys would have relayed the hotel's pinkness with such a minimal, aggressive act of paragraphing. What matters to the narrator is not the conference's substance, but the pink hotel where it occurred. In a long, swaying sentence fragment, Didion evokes the storm around the hotel:

The power failing, the tennis balls long since dead, the candles blowing out at the table in the main dining-room where Douglas Dillon and his wife and George Ball and his wife and Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger are sitting (not eating, no dinner has arrived, no dinner will arrive), the pale linen curtains in the main dining-room blowing out, the rain on the parquet floor, the isolation, the excitement, the tropical storm.

In a gesture reminiscent of To the Lighthouse, Didion subordinates the words of bossy foreign-affairs honchos to the destructive, animating power of wind, which outlives statesmen and local pomposities. What matters, in Didion's universe, is the circumstance-annihilating wind, and the hotel's power to survive it. Didion's art has checked into that pink hotel, and so her words absorb the wind's inspiration—cruel, salvific. The narrator, too, has this power (immunity to earthquake, storm and change), if she can find a room vacant in the hotel, if she can hide from the concierge and the identity police and the government and the critics, and stay with the typewriter and her languor and her Basis soap and her bourbon in a nice room overlooking the water. Pink hotel prose outlasts controversy, personality and the limiting typologies that govern literary production. (Is it a thriller, poem or essay? Must we decide?) Didion's narrator wants a second conference to take place at the same pink hotel:

I would like to have seen such a reassessment take place at the same hotel in the Keys, the same weather, the same mangroves clattering, the same dolphins and the same tennis doubles, the same possibilities. I would like to have seen them all gathered there, old men in the tropics, old men in lime-coloured pants and polo shirts and golf hats, old men at a pink hotel in a storm.

The vision is half Wallace Stevens, half T. S. Eliot—‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ crossed with ‘Gerontion’. And it is entirely Didion to place such a poetic utterance—a paean to the dissolution of personality—in a work that poses as a political thriller, but in which the sentences have more glamour than the characters.

Incarnation, for Didion, is a revolving door in a hotel lobby where the two central characters in The Last Thing meet and where one has the luxury of overhearing universal secrets. There seems, in Didion's work, a persistent connection between hotel and earthquake—if only because earthquake is California's goddess of destruction, and because Didion portrays hotels as limbos receiving front-line reports of calamities.

Maybe she told him who she was because he ordered Early Times. Maybe she looked at him and saw the fog off the Farallons, maybe he looked at her and saw the hot desert twilight. Maybe they looked at each other and knew that nothing they could do would matter as much as the slightest tremor of the earth, the blind trembling of the Pacific in its bowl, the heavy snows closing the mountain passes, the rattlers in the dry grass, the sharks cruising the deep cold water through the Golden Gate.

Joan Didion is a Californian writer more than she is an American writer. Is hotel prose, however, an American mode? Two recent specimens of hotel prose have been composed by New York poets: Kenneth Koch's Hotel Lambosa (a sequence of stories—actually, they are prose poems, if that designation makes a difference) and John Ashbery's Hotel Lautréamont, a monumentally long volume of poems, many of them deliriously prosaic, all in slant homage to the French Surrealists, who understood hotels.

I do not know how far one may take the notion of hotel prose. I plan to take it quite far. I put these first gleanings forward, now, in praise of Joan Didion's art. Of the sensibility implied by ‘pink hotel’, she is our finest living avatar.


Didion, Joan (Vol. 1)


Didion, Joan (Vol. 14)