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Joan Didion 1934–

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American novelist, essayist, journalist, scriptwriter, and short story writer.

Didion is respected both as a novelist and as a writer of personalized, journalistic essays. The disintegration of American morals and the cultural chaos upon which her essays comment are explored more fully in her novels, where the overriding theme is individual and societal fragmentation. Consequently, a sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work, and her novels have a reputation for being depressing and even morbid.

Didion's essays have appeared regularly in such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post, National Review, The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books and have been collected in two volumes, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). In the title essay of the latter volume, which concerns both the national chaos of the summer of 1968 and her own nervous breakdown at that time, Didion wrote, "an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." This essay illustrates the emphasis which Didion places in all her writing on the relationship between personal and national dissolution. Many critics hold Didion's essays in higher regard than her novels, but Didion claims that she "never wanted to be a journalist or a reporter" and that reportorial assignments serve for her primarily as sources of material for her novels.

Didion's first novel, Run River (1963), is a story of family strife set in California, Didion's native state. Lily McClellan, the central character, is typical of the complex, fully developed female protagonists Didion is noted for creating. These are women who try to find meaning in a world which no longer recognizes the importance of personal and collective morals and who attempt to maintain ties with a past which has no place in the present. Central to Run River is the portrayal of California as the last frontier of American idealism and the place most representative of the country's cultural disintegration. The vision of the United States as an amoral society is mirrored in the breakdown of a family. Didion uses this microcosmic technique in all of her fiction, including three short stories written in 1964 and collected in a limited edition volume, Telling Stories (1978). These stories are noted for their foreshadowing of the themes which appear in her later novels.

Geographical locations play an important role in emphasizing themes in Didion's fiction. The setting for Maria Wyeth's nihilistic crisis in Play It As It Lays (1970) is the artificial world of Hollywood, where people use one another to advance their own status. Boca Grande is the imaginary Latin American country in which Charlotte Douglas awaits the arrival of her outlaw daughter in A Book of Common Prayer (1977). A country without a past or a future, torn apart by frequent, violent uprisings, it mirrors Charlotte's internal disorder.

The political turbulence and violence which have lately been endemic in Latin America resurface in Salvador (1983), Didion's account of her two-week stay in El Salvador. The essays in Salvador are concerned not with facts about the conflict but with the fear that pervades daily existence in such a place. Like her earlier journalism, these essays are written from an extremely personal point of view through which Didion conveys her own fear and repulsion. In the novel Democracy (1984), Didion returns 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, as a love story, and as an exposure of the fraudulence of public life. The various threads interweave to form a picture of America's political decline and moral decay. Somewhat disarmingly, Didion provides the narrator with her own name,...

(The entire section contains 9428 words.)

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