Joan Didion Didion, Joan (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joan Didion 1934–

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, forcing the reader to question the fictional nature of the other characters.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)

Katherine Usher Henderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few contemporary American writers are "American" in all the ways that Joan Didion is. Although she has visited Europe often, she has never written an essay on Europe, nor do we find a single European character in her fiction. Not only are all of her major fictional characters born and raised in the United States; they also bear no marks of European nationality, carry no memory traces of European traditions. (p. 140)

In both her fiction and her essays, Didion sees the American character as often arrogant, often nostalgic, but invariably and quintessentially romantic, and thus deluded. Her more nostalgic characters are ever looking backward to the simplicity of childhood, finding there the source of the myth they are currently living: Maria Wyeth learned from her father that material success is life's easy and natural goal; Lily McClellan learned from her parents that no harm could come to her or her family in the Sacramento Valley. Her other characters have woven different myths: Charlotte Douglas, that all change is progress, that history moves people inevitably toward the greater good; Grace Strasser-Mendana, that every problem is susceptible of scientific solution. These illusions are characteristically (although not exclusively) American, and Didion also sees as characteristically American the tenacity with which they are held and the naiveté with which they are expressed.

Against these romantic myths Didion portrays the reality of the emptiness of material success, the disintegration of the family, and social and economic revolution that do not, in any moral sense at least, constitute progress. Her characters must either recognize this reality (a recognition that may produce madness, as it does in the case of Maria Wyeth) or be destroyed by it, as Lucille Miller and Charlotte Douglas are. Among Didion's heroines only Lily McClellan and Grace Strasser-Mendana have the resilience to confront the realities of chaos and evil and still find something in life worth affirming.

Seeing herself as "American" as anyone, Didion is constantly testing her own illusions against reality…. Although brought up with the same illusions as many of the people she writes about, Didion, unlike most of them, is ultimately an antiromantic realist.

Didion's writings are American in their characters, in the myths by which these characters try to live their lives, and in their tension between a vision of nature and God as benevolent and a conflicting vision of nature and the supernatural as fraught with danger and evil. Didion sees in Americans the dissonance produced by a naive confidence that they have a covenant with God coexisting with a fear of omnipresent evil and imminent doom; stemming from our Puritan heritage, this dissonance is familiar to readers of nineteenth-century American literature, for it is a dominant note in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville. (pp. 140-42)

Nature is sometimes beautiful in Didion's writings …, but it is always latent with terror as well, for it can subdue man, reducing him to insignificance. Like the Mississippi River in Mark Twain's Huck Finn, the Sacramento River in Run River represents not only time, but also the power and mystery of nature to which man is subject. The forces of nature in Didion's writings—the Santa Ana winds, a forest fire burning out of control—often have the majestic, destructive power that Melville attributed to the great white whale. As Ishmael wonders whether the destruction of the Pequod reflects upon the evil of Moby Dick or the evil living in the sailors' hearts, so does Didion stress the same mystery…. Like the heroes of Hawthorne and Melville, Didion's heroines inhabit a world in which good and evil are not merely social or political, but part of the impenetrable universe itself.

Whereas Didion certainly sees the subjects of her fiction and essays as American, she would probably be surprised to hear her work described as "woman's literature," especially since she has publically rejected the tenets of the women's movement. Yet all three of her novels are dominated by a woman's point of view, and all three portray in detail women's feelings about experiences that are exclusively feminine: childbirth, motherhood, abortion, menstruation, sexual submission to male demands. The relationship between mother and daughter is important in all three, and overshadows all other bonds in Play It As It Lays…. All of Didion's heroines are mothers, and all are deeply involved with their children.

Although men in Didion's fiction often...

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David Leppard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

El Salvador calls everything into question. Among foreign visitors there is an endemic paranoia, a profound sense that every moment harbours the possibility of a violent death. Deploying her full rhetorical weaponry, Joan Didion's [Salvador] takes us on a journey to the heart of the Salvadorean darkness. It evokes the unspeakable insanity effected by a well-intentioned imperialism gone terribly wrong….

Her critics will object that two weeks is insufficient time to make an expert of anyone. The objection is valid; but it entirely misconstrues Ms Didion's purpose. Salvador deliberately refrains from offering an economic, social or political analysis of the causes of the war; and in this sense, admittedly, it has only a partial truth to tell. It concentrates instead on capturing the atmosphere of a particularly horrific place at a particularly horrific time, to the exclusion of past or future concerns.

Dissolving the simple dichotomy of Left and Right, the book possesses a remarkable capacity for blending penetrating social documentary with the literature of apocalypse…. It constitutes a black tourist guide through the noche obscura of the Salvadorean nightmare: the apparently safe Sheraton Hotel, where two US agrarian advisers were assassinated; the death dumps at El Playon and the Puerta del Diablo; the city morgue. (p. 23)

This is a powerful and highly articulate indictment of the pervasive political repression which has become institutionalised in El Salvador today. This indictment reaches its highest pitch in Joan Didion's description of the unfinished cathedral in San Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was drilled through the heart with a .22-calibre dumdum bullet while saying mass. (pp. 23-4)

David Leppard, "Salvadorean Nights," in The Listener, Vol. 109, No. 2806, April 28, 1983, pp. 23-4.

Mark Falcoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Salvador is an exhaustive and picturesque catalogue of all the vices of Salvadoran society, juxtaposed with descriptions of the relentlessly optimistic posturing of U.S. embassy officials in San Salvador and the staff of our military and AID missions. Miss Didion utilizes her pen as a sort of zoom lens, shifting rapidly and in close focus from decomposing corpses on a country road to the sinister features of troglodyte generals and corrupt politicians, from the squalor of rural villages to the false glitter of roller discos and Miss Universe pageants. Folded into these sketches … are excerpts from the U.S. and Salvadoran press, from official documents, and also from "documents" of less readily ascertainable...

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John Pilger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] apocalyptic obsession of Reagan and others before him has been usually exported [to Central America] without the knowledge and approval of most of the American people, many of whom would oppose its imposition if only they knew that such criminal stupidity ran counter to the interests of their own nation. In Salvador Joan Didion seems to be making this point; elsewhere in the rush of her stylish prose such basic truths, which her readers need to know, are missing. As a journalist I can understand that perhaps only an exceptional novelist can encapsulate an epoch; and in this respect Salvador is a lost opportunity. (p. 20)

Joan Didion's book is certainly compulsive reading as...

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Juan E. Corradi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In places where life is reasonably ordered, the violence that rages in the Third World is masked by a propensity to integrate it in some favorite sequence of meaning…. It is rarely, if ever, depicted as a terrifying impasse, as horror, a catastrophe of meaning. The politician's speech, the journalist's story, the social scientist's account do not reach the "heart of darkness." Only a writer in full command of her craft can recreate it on the page. Joan Didion's Salvador, a lean and splendid book, pierces ideological fictions and takes us to the outer and almost unbearable limits of what we call "politics," "society," and "culture"—to the point where those rational notions turn into terror, obscenity, and...

(The entire section is 758 words.)

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The literary critic Frederick Karl was recently quoted as saying that Joan Didion "diminishes whatever she touches." It's a remark that becomes more interesting when you twist it into a compliment: Joan Didion writes from a vantage point so remote that all she describes seems tiny and trim and uncannily precise, like a scene viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. That cleared space where she stands, that chilly vacuum that could either be intellectual irony or profound depression, gives her a slant of vision that is arresting and unique.

Democracy, her fourth novel, is narrated by an "I" who is apparently Joan Didion herself, untransformed….

And what is her story?...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Democracy," a novel, takes its title from Henry Adams's "Democracy," subtitled "An American Novel."…

I have found it hard to make out what connection there can be between Joan Didion's "Democracy," opening with a memory of the pink dawns of early atomic weapons tests in the Pacific, and Henry Adams's "Democracy," which deals with the dirty politics of the second Grant Administration. And, leaving aside Henry Adams, I do not quite see how democracy comes into the Didion tale except for the fact that two Democratic politicians (both Vietnam-war opponents) and a C.I.A. man play large roles in it. For Adams, "democracy" had become a coarse travesty of the ideal of popular rule, indissociable from the...

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Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joan Didion is one of those writers—Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Gore Vidal are others—who are so good at the higher journalism that their status as novelists may sometimes seem insecure. Do they, we may wonder, keep writing fiction out of professional pride, as if only the novel could truly certify their literary talent and seriousness? Are not their novels, however fine, shadowed by a suspicion, however baseless, that the form is not quite the best form for such powers?

Certainly Democracy, Didion's new novel, opens with an ominously awkward display of self-consciousness about the basic moves of fictional narrative:

The light at...

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Isa Kapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The steady drizzle of bitter memories in [Democracy] keeps directing the reader to "one night outside Honolulu in the spring of 1975 … when the C130s and the C141s were already shuttling between Honolulu and Anderson and Clark and Saigon … bringing out the dependents, bringing out the dealers, bringing out the money, bringing out the pet dogs and the sponsored bar girls and the porcelain elephants…." From this string of scornful images we can tell that the American system of government is going to have the ignominious fate of disappointing Joan Didion.

It's not the first time we have been privy to Didion's vexations of the spirit, and we have by now grown accustomed to the tone of sad...

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Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I do not have the attention span to sustain a lengthy depression, but I have of late been reading two novelists who do: Renata Adler and Joan Didion. I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining…. Miss Adler and Miss Didion are slender women who write slender books heavy with gloom. (p. 62)

Democracy, Joan Didion's most recent novel, is, as its narrator, a woman calling herself Joan Didion, calls it, a "novel of fitful glimpses." It is Miss Didion's richest novel since Run River. By richest I mean that there are riches on every page: lovely details, sharp observations, risky but always interesting generalizations, real...

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