Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Know What Nothing Means: A Joan Didion Retrospective

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.” --Play It As It Lays

I've been busy this summer. Not with this blog-- sorry guys --but with studying, grad school prep, learning Russian and doing a ton of reading. And one part of that reading was really exciting: tearing through an absolutely massive amount of Joan Didion.

Didion has a new book out, called Blue Nights. And while I don't exactly want to celebrate this-- the book is about some very personal tragedy --the first book in 6 years from one of America's best living writers deserves something, given that I've read 4 of her 5 novels and a ton of her essays over the past 3 months. So I thought that I'd do something to honor this tiny woman with her huge, lethal, weaponized language and put together something about her and her incredible works. These are five of her best books, making them some of our best books. Note the themes, the strengths, the obsessions and moral responsibilities she shoulders over and over again.

An act made even more impressive by her frail, bird-like bones.
Run, River (1963)

"In that moment before either of them spoke, it occurred to Everett that Lily was not as pretty as she had once been. No one had ever called her beautiful, but there had been about her a compelling fragility, the illusion not only of her bones but of her eyes."

Run, River, Didion's debut, is a strange book. Didion has said it's her least favorite of her works, criticizing the nostalgia in it-- she wrote it in New York, having just left California, and the book is a tribute to the beauty, strangeness, and cruelty of California's cultures and land. I'll defend it as a great read and a stirring book, with the addendum that it's not necessarily a great Didion novel. It's a little more sentimental, which also makes it a little more raw, with less wit and more bluntness. There's little of the delicate construction or intensely clever structure of her later works, and more excitement and melodrama.

It is, out of all of her fiction, the most Faulknerian, which is part of where my soft spot comes. Like Faulkner, Didion was the heir to a dead tradition (in her case, the Westward pilgrims and land-owning planters that first colonized the state) and wrote a work that attempts to address both the nobility of that tradition and the failings and sins that led to its death. Some of it-- such as the scenes in which Lily, the main character, falls in love with her future husband Everett --are intensely powerful and real, without the distance or coyness that can sometimes dampen her work. Some of it (such as the last page, which commits the sin she would ever after avoid of feeling the need to give the book a clean resolution rather than the anticlimax or the painful fading that she does so well) is clearly the work of a beginner. If you're not sure about the postmodernism or experimentalism that characterizes her other fiction, or if you want a book that is more of a straightforward "good read" and less weird, start here. I guess the best description is "this is the Didion book I would recommend to my parents," which isn't to imply that it's not a perfectly fine novel.

And the fact that she was still in her 20s when she wrote it will make you hate her.

As opposed to hating her for being so damn stylish.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem / The White Album (1968, 1979)

"In this country so ominous that to live in it is to live with antimatter, it is difficult to belive that 'the good' is a knowable quantity.... It is a network kept alive by people whose instincts tell them that if they do not keep moving at night on the desert they will lose all reason."
--"On Morality"

I've grouped these two together for an important reason: they are, thematically, continuations of each other. Both are essay collections about 1960's radicalism and counterculture: Slouching Towards Bethlehem from within Haight-Ashbury in the middle of it all, The White Album from nearly a decade later, looking back with the benefit of hindsight and through a lens of personal suffering.

Bethlehem (composed, with the exception of 1961's Vogue essay "On Self-Respect", of essays written 65-67) was, at its publication, a fairly controversial work. Not because it was some conservative pro-status-quo treatise, which the counterculture could shrug off, but because it was one of the very first books by a leftist author who believed in the causes and ideals of the radical movements of the 60s and criticized them, not out of anger, but out of disappointment at these groups' small-mindedness, their selfishness and inability to unify. At its core this noble philosophy can be expressed as "you know you'd get more done if you weren't high all the time," but there's usually more to it than that. "Where the Kissing Stops," her incredible essay on Joan Baez, is both a tribute to Baez's great work and a sigh of frustration at the way that Baez allowed herself to become an icon of protest without ever seeming to commit or believe in a concrete cause. This is Bethlehem's great strength: a recognition of the nobility of 60's radicalism and a dread at its own self-indulgence, at the rickety nature of it and the selfishness it veered to. There's anger in it, but it's not disdainful-- it's an anger at wasted potential, and it's one that turned out to be incredibly prescient.
Now available on your upper-middle-class parent's iPod.
"I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife."
--"The White Album"

The White Album, however, addresses many of the same themes through a lens of bitterness and pain, through the knowledge that she had been right and that the center of this unfocused rebellion had not held. It draws its title, not from any great love of The Beatles, but from Didion's fear that perhaps the event which encapsulated both the fallout of the 1960's and the turmoil of her personal life after them was the Manson Murders-- senseless bloody chaos justified with meaningless references to rebellion and the broad strokes of "counterculture." The book is written in the shadow of the 1960s and written with a sense of terror and dread, a chronicle of both Didion's struggles with depression, vertigo, and anxiety and of the nation's.

Do you know Christopher Walken's scene in Annie Hall? The one where Waken shows up for about 90 seconds and is dripping with existential dread and calm self-destruction, a scene that comes off both as a joke and as a terrifying truth? The one that Jawbreaker beautifully, beautifully sampled in "Jet Black?" The White Album is a book that possesses all the fear and magic of that scene-- something darkly witty and strange and uncomfortably warm, but also a little glimpse into Hell.
"The sound of shattering glass, flames rising out of the flowing gasoline."
It's a powerful, powerful work, and probably my favorite of her nonfiction. There's a beautiful connection that she draws between the personal and the political-- between her constant traveling and America's obsession with where it should go next, between second-wave feminists' feelings of powerlessness and futility of their political efforts with her own feelings of being trapped as a woman in a world that denies them autonomy. It's a model for memoirists and essayists to strive for, in which it seems that the author cannot write about any other subject and the subject could not be written about by any other author.

Play It As It Lays (1970)

“By the end of the week she was 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.”

Play It As It Lays
is quite possibly Didion's best novel-- or at least, in fierce competition --and a perfect companion piece to the nonfiction collections I just talked about. It's the story of Maria-- a film director's wife, loving mother of a mentally-damaged child, lover of a self-destructive Hollywood mover --and her slow decline into oblivion.

The book is beautiful and the most raw Didion's ever been. There's an incredible balance going on here: more than anything else she's written, the fragile balance of her language and the painful, burning migraine of the emotional intensity of the book manage to support each other. It's a book of incredible loneliness, as Maria becomes more and more distant from the world at large, more and more focused on things she has lost and keenly aware of the disregard that the men in her life have for her. There are so many moments of quiet horror here, from the brutal-- Maria's illegal abortion, which is calm and bloodless and yet aches with an incredible sense of panic --to the mundane: Maria sleeping by the pool, trying to convince herself it is because of the summer heat and knowing that it's really because she can't bear to sleep in a house she still considers her husband's.

Play It As It Lays, like The White Album is simultaneously confessional and political. It never says "Maria was destroyed because even during a time of social change and movements for equality we never tried to actually help middle-class women find a freedom from oppressive social mores and a comfort with their sexuality," but it recognizes that its tragedy is not purely personal. It's not a book about women, but a book about one woman and the burdens on her and how she was never equipped to carry them. The best comparison is the photography of Cindy Sherman-- like Didion, Sherman makes work not about the struggles of women but about the life of this woman, while never pretending that the two aren't inextricably linked. If you want to know the feeling of this book, browse Sherman's magnificent "Film Stills" collection-- some of the finest art photography of all time --sip bourbon, take benzodiazapan, sit by the pool on the evening of a hot day.

"Carter could not remember the soft down on her [daughter's] spine or he would not have let them put needles there."
It's also John Darnielle's favorite novel, and that man's recommendations have never steered me wrong.

Democracy (1984)

 "By which I mean to suggest that Inez Victor had developed certain mannerisms peculiar to people in the public eye.: a way of fixing her gaze in the middle distance... a noticeably frequent blink, as if the photographer's strobes had triggered a continuing flash on her retina.

By which I mean that Inez Victor had lost certain details."

When I said that Play It As It Lays was in fierce competition for the title of Didion's masterpiece, this is its rival. And they really ought to share that title, as it's impossible to compare them. Play It As It Lays is searing, elegant but also unrelenting. Democracy is as meticulously constructed and as coolly elegant as a Rennie-Mackintosh piece. If you look at Play on they recommend Baldwin's Another Country; for Democracy they recommend Mailer's Armies of the Night.

Which isn't to imply that Democracy's coldness is at all a demerit against it. It is a book about coldness. It is a book about Inez Victor, nee Christian, a senator's (and failed presidential candidate's) wife, and the way that a life lived in public, a life spent considering the consequences of every action and how every word will play, has slowly picked away the parts of her that one could call human. About how her own memory of herself and awareness of who she is is being replaced by the public image of herself and the stories about her in magazines. Inez is an outsider to the actual political business that shapes her life, instead viewing it from an enforced distance and watching herself be shaped as though she were an objective narrator of someone else's story.

The writing about politics and politicking in this book is incredible-- the way that everything is constantly weighed and considered, the three different overlapping conversations that can carry on at once. There's a lot of Democracy that reminds me of a tragic, Vietnam-era West Wing.
"I am the Lord they God. Thou shalt never get off the boat."
The book takes place against the backdrop of America's withdrawal from South Vietnam-- ending with those last helicopters leaving the embassy --and its use of that as a backdrop, rather than a central focus, allows it to be an incredible book about the politics of Vietnam. As it approaches the end, and Inez's personal problems escalate, Inez and the narrator (who is a fictional Didion, writing a novel based on Inez from a world where the events the novel is based on are history) become less invested in them. Democracy recognizes its inability to treat the scope of America's failure with due magnitude or to even comprehend it, and the paralysis that sets in is beautiful and terrifying. There's something almost Zen about it, as Inez realizes how little the politics of her husband matter against the fact that America's failings and the freedom that comes with accepting the scope of a world she cannot effect.

It's also, like all of Didion's novels, about love, desire, infidelity, family, need, and self-awareness. It's short and beautiful.

So that should be a good reading list for you. Find the book that looks the most exciting and read it sometime-- none of her books will take you longer than a couple days. If nothing else, pick up We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the 1100-page collection of all her pre-2005 nonfiction. And Joan-- thank you for all you've done for your readers and for literature, and know that however helpless you may feel or have felt in the face of tragedy and despair, you've helped s many of us through it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for making me want to reread all of Joan Didion RIGHT NOW!