Joan Didion Didion, Joan (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Didion, Joan 1934–

Didion is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and editor. Her work depicts without false sentimentality and in prose noted for its intensity and elegance the fragmentation of societal institutions and values. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The White Album" is] full of Miss Didion, the dreamer of bad dreams. Doris Lessing, she says, registers "every tremor along her emotional fault system." So does Miss Didion—the migraine headaches; the "vertigo and nausea;" the "condition" that has "the kind of name usually associated with telethons;" the contemplated divorce; the bottle of bourbon in the hotel room; the dread in the sunlight; an inexplicable desire to be in Honolulu; her conviction that "narrative" no longer suffices, the script has been mislaid, happy conclusions are impossible, certain images refuse to make sense, and life ends up like so many feet of film on the cutting-room floor of a movie never finished. Her nervous system is a San Andreas Fault. (pp. 269-70)

"The White Album" is full of Miss Didion as a reporter and a Californian. Perhaps because her last two novels, "Play It as It Lays" and "A Book of Common Prayer," were so sinister and deracinated, so daunting in their stare at the soul, I forgot what a splendid reporter she is. The self is always there but, unlike too much New Journalism, so are the facts—on orchid breeding, on the theory of the shopping mall, on how water moves around in aqueducts, on Bogotá and the Hoover Dam….

The reporter, the Californian and the sleep walker with bad dreams conspire in "The White Album"—the very mood of dread in the sunlight—at a cyanide lollipop. It is as if the absurd and the irrational...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Admirers of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion's first collection of essays, will recognize at once her skewed, wry world, which often resembles the setting for a story by Donald Barthelme. The White Album, her second collection, is a kind of battle report from the '60s—brief notes from someone who manages to be an outsider, observing dispassionately, even when she is wounded in the crossfire. (p. C1)

Unease, foreboding and even terror color Joan Didion's perceptions of the '60s, but something cool and still in her voice prevents The White Album from being too disturbing to read. It's as if she were gazing through the wrong end of a telescope. Describing a man's intrusion into her house, she says, "We looked at each other for what seemed a long time, and then he saw my husband on the stair landing. 'Chicken Delight,' he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, nor was he carrying any. I took the license number of his panel truck. It seems to me now that during those years I was always writing down the license numbers of panel trucks…. I put [them] in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came." Her grave style of speech lends the scene an eerie motionlessness. We share her apprehensions,… but this is something oddly finer and more tightly focused than our own experiences. In a strange way, it's even funny; ourselves, our times, our bogeymen written up as anthropological curiosities. (pp. C1, C6)

Some phrases in The White Album are so exact, so supremely accurate, that you almost hear a little clink! as they fall into place….

A warning: this is not a book to read at one sitting. The very tone that is so appealing—the ironic voice, the distance—can distance even the reader, if it goes on too long at a stretch. On what remote cliff is this person standing, anyhow? we begin to wonder. What would she not view from outside? It's best to read these essays as they were written: one by one, slowly, reflectively—like very good olives. Properly savored, The White Album is a true satisfaction. (p. C6)

Anne Tyler, "California Nightmares," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), June 17, 1979, pp. C1, C6.

Anne Hulbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The "temperamentally unobtrusive" reporter of a decade ago is now a literary figure who is taking her own pulse in her pages, not just observing American styles and states of mind. And that pulse is racing with anxiety. In the title essay of [The White Album] Didion announces "I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself."… Obsessed by this radical disorder, Didion writes in an intense and agitated style—the style of the haunted characters of her novels. Instead of the often insightful, ironic, deft stories of her first collection, her new essays tend to lose their shape and sharpness in her angst.

The world outside this new and larger self in The White Album looks strikingly familiar. In most of the essays … Didion is still writing about the 1960s, and the golden land. But the revealing stories, the little ironies she once found in the 1960s aren't there anymore. Janis Joplin, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Hollywood people, music people, students demonstrating, bizarre murders—the old cast, the old dramas—flash quickly in and out, signifying very little.

If Didion serves up the bewildering 1960s warmed over and without neat narrative lines, her literary imagination resumes its exertions when she writes about California. (p. 35)

But this collection of essays is not mainly about society, the 1960s or the California style. It is the woman who grew up "convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social...

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Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Try to imagine Franz Kafka speeding along a California freeway, or sitting around with some rock musicians, or lolling on a Honolulu beach. You can't quite, can you? Nevertheless, such images—in their very incongruity—pinpoint the what-is-wrong-with-this-picture? feeling I had while reading Joan Didion's new collection of essays, The White Album…. I was tempted to dismiss the sensation altogether: Maybe the problem resided with me, rather than Didion, who is, after all, a very good writer. But it lingered and I had to pay attention.

The author, I finally realized, is the purveyor of a very streamlined model of angst. Like tubular furniture, there are no cumbersome appendages or unnecessary details. Everything is pared down for maximal depressive effect…. [This way of arranging reality] is not, at any rate, in itself objectionable as a style. It worked, for instance, supremely to her advantage in her first collection of pieces, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and it has worked intermittently well in her three novels. It has ceased to work, most of the time, in The White Album. The angst is no longer believable; it has become too savvy and too clean. The famed delicacy of nerves … is now completely strategic. Calculated from first to last, her frailty is mere intellectual teasing….

Like all great teasers, Didion nonetheless gets what she wants; her insistent vulnerability exercises—and this is the cunning of it—a tyranny of its own: We are not to hold her to anything, for migraine-ridden as she is, it is a wonder she is able to jot down her thoughts at all. She can still make the most astringent of judgments when she pleases…. When she doesn't feel up to drawing conclusions, however, she starts to act dazed-and-breathless, in the manner of Marilyn Monroe. (p. 16)

That Didion invests the fictional world of "the invisible city" with...

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Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer—not entirely facetiously—that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantle, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her adopted daughter with the name Quintana Roo; I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator's having pleated instead of gathered her new dining-room curtains. These, and other assorted facts…. put me more in mind of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America's finest woman prose stylist….

[In "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem] Didion reports, or purports to report, on the murder case of one Lucille Maxwell Miller, who was convicted by the State of California of having killed her husband by dousing him with gasoline and allowing him to burn to death while he slept in a Volkswagen she had been driving.

Until I sat down to write this essay, I could not, in fact, remember whether Lucille Maxwell Miller had been convicted or acquitted. Now, unlike the heroines of Didion's fiction, I do not regard memory as an affliction; I remember. I remember in part because I have no choice, but also in part because (unlike Didion's heroines, whose fate depends less upon memory and volition than upon selective amnesia), I believe that without memory there is no civilization. To complain ("I am so tired of remembering things") of remembering is to express a wish to be dead, to return to some pre-Edenic state in which good and evil, right and wrong, do not exist. It is a wish to erase, not only one's personal painful past but our collective past—which, in turn, is an invitation to believe that we cannot, individually or collectively, affect the present or the future.

I remember; so why didn't I remember what was surely a salient fact to Lucille Maxwell Miller if not to Ms. Didion? The reason—and I ask you to understand that this is directly related to lavender pillows and matching lavender orchids—is that Didion was not in truth engaged in reporting about Lucille Maxwell Miller; Didion was reporting on Didion's sensibility, which in this essay, as in all her essays, assumes more importance than, say, the existence of the electric chair…. The crime for which Didion indicts Lucille Maxwell Miller is of being tacky—of not, that is, being Didion. This, you see, is where the lavender pillows come in: The body of Lucille Maxwell Miller's husband—burned black—offends Didion less than the fact that Lucille Maxwell Miller wore hair curlers. It isn't Didion's sense of morality that has suffered a blow, it's her sense of style…. Which is why, although I have nothing in principle against pretty houses or lavender love seats, Ms. Didion's lyrical Angst strikes me as transparently ersatz….

Didion's "style" is a bag of tricks. Some of the effects she produces are quite pretty, even momentarily beautiful. But make no mistake: These are tricks—techniques—that can be learned (I don't know why they have evoked so much wonder). If, for example, I put Al Capone and sweet williams in the same sentence, I can be fairly sure that a certain number of readers will be jolted by the juxtaposition—their eyes will cross, and they will assume that they are in the presence of genius. They will be wrong, of course, because unless I use this technique to draw them into meaning, I will have cheated them…. And, as Didion will gladly acknowledge, she is interested only in the what (the "empirical evidence"), not in the why.

Didion uses the Capone-sweet williams trick often, sometimes with dazzling effect…. (p. 277)

[The] juxtaposition of nihilism with all the ripeness and plenitude of the physical world—the emptiness/cornucopia syndrome—is what passes for style….

(I am also not unaware of the danger of confusing Didion with the narrators of her novels. I am aware of the danger, but I discount it, because the sensibility of her female narrators is indistinguishable from that which informs her essays.)…

Here is another kind of trick, a trick used to round off a paragraph or an essay that threatens to be going nowhere. From The White Album: "James Jones had known a great simple truth: the Army was nothing more than life itself." Nonsense. Tell it to the Marines. Look hard at that capricious sentence, and it wilts—for the very good reason that there is no truth in it, only contrivance…. Actually, as I think about it, it's worse than that: There is just enough truth in that sentence for it to slip by unnoticed. Sentences that contain half-truths should not be allowed to slip by unnoticed. (p. 278)

Didion makes it a point of honor not to struggle for meaning. (I have yet to meet anyone who has offered a satisfactory explanation for the first and last sentences of A Book of Common Prayer: "I will be her witness." "I have not been the witness I wanted to be." Witness to what? one asks. Some ask. I no longer ask.) I do not require that a novelist eradicate all mystery, which is in any case impossible…. Compare the sensibility of the existentialists to that of Didion—which also stems from the 1950s—because while Didion chooses to call attention to that which is ludicrous (Huey Newton spouting rhetoric), the existentialists, and Camus in particular, chose to call attention to that which was and is tragically absurd. The difference between the ludicrous and the absurd is the difference between the mirror (Didion) and the void (Camus). Reports from the mirror are likely to be jaundiced, puling and debilitating; reports from the void can, not so strangely if you think about it long enough, inspire courage and the will to act. You will remember that transcendent moment when Camus's Sisyphus, bound to his absurd fate, poised on top of the mountain, sees his rock, his burden, plummet to the earth; at that moment, lucid and aware, Sisyphus knows that he will once again and forever push the rock, the burden, up the mountain; but in that moment, wrestling with meaning, he becomes truly human. The essence of human dignity resides in that struggle for meaning. (pp. 278-79)

Now listen to Didion:

"I prefer not to know."

"The meaning continues to elude me."

"Nothing applies."

"Trying to find some order, a pattern, I found none."…

Nothing matters, Didion...

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