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Daphne Merkin

The Cult of Saint Joan

In 1979, as a young and intrepid critic, I devoted my books column in The New Leader to Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” The essay took a stand against the adulation surrounding the writer’s work: her discerning but intractably disaffected persona and the immutable aura of unenchantment that informed her voice. It was impossible not to be aware of Didion’s exalted position as a gifted novelist and New Journalist (one of very few women, although feminism was not her thing) if you were in any way conscious of literary opinions. As the seismic waves of praise have rolled in since her death at the age of 87, it’s clear to me that her standing has only ascended since.

The literary scholar Christopher Ricks made a distinction between being “unenchanted” and “disenchanted.” The latter category implies that you have been let down in your hopes and dreams; the former that you never had any to begin with. Didion, of course, belongs to the first breed. Nothing ever seemed to excite her or faze her or disappoint her, largely because she set her sights so low to begin with. She cannot be disabused. Spotting Jim Morrison on a spring evening in 1968 recording a rhythm track leads her to comment on his outfit — “black vinyl pants and no underwear” — and the gnomic remark (one of her specialties) that his whole gestalt suggested “some range of the possible just beyond a suicide pact.”

Didion was the archpriestess of cool — possessed of a corrosive sense of irony and an overriding habit of condescension — in a period of greater naïveté and belief than we live in now. She got points for lying around at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (“I spent what seemed to many people I knew an eccentric amount of time in Honolulu”) mocking the philistine luxury that surrounded her, invoking The New York Review of Books she carried as armor. (And thus, I suppose, demonstrating that luxury didn’t move her, that she was above being beguiled by all those swanky seductions deep-thinking people are supposed to be immune to: glamour, power and money.) Then again, it was a time before the indictment of the blindness of white privilege, the justifiable outrage of Black Lives Matter, the score-settling of #MeToo and the prim judgments of woke culture. Many of her views, especially her obsession with class indicators such as dress, décor, name brands and status, would not fly today.

“We lived in dark houses and favored a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken,” she wrote in 2003, “which was said to ‘bring out the pattern.’ To this day I am put off by highly polished silver; it looks ‘new.’” In 2017, when Didion visited a beach in an area of the Gulf Coast where many of the residents live in trailers, she observed in “South and West” that “the women wore two-piece bathing suits, shorts and halters, not bikinis.” In Didion’s tony Malibu, evidently, the women preferred scantier beachwear.

Even in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” written in the wake of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and generally considered to be the most eloquent and moving of Didion’s works, she can’t help pointing out that she is the chairman of her co-op board; or the name of the store in Beverly Hills where she bought a robe; or that her agent gets busy on the phone with the chief obituary writer for The New York Times within hours of Dunne’s death; or that she and her husband dined at chic places like Morton’s and the Bistro, where they were given the coveted corner banquette, when they were in Los Angeles. She takes her access to power for granted — “If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to … get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris” — and in between is left to bear the indignities imposed by paramedics and social workers imposed on ordinary folk.

Although there is nothing precisely objectionable in these details, there is, to my way of thinking, something tiresome about them, a tic of un-self-conscious snootiness that undercuts the overall emotional pull of the book, in which the writer otherwise succeeds in capturing the hide-and-seek quality of grief’s daily rituals. Oddly, for all her insistent elitism, young readers have embraced Didion. For the past three decades, whenever I have asked my students to share the work of a writer whose prose they admire, there are always several pieces by Didion. Literary reputations come and go, but Didion is eternal, the waiflike observer who never has the wool pulled over her eyes, the croupier rolling the dice who never overestimates the stakes.

From the beginning Didion got points for being unshockable despite — or perhaps precisely because of — the fact that she had grown up in a well-off family from conservative Sacramento, where rosewood dressers and silver brushes were handed down the generations. “Didions have lived in California, with a ranchero sense of entitlement, since the beginning of the 19th century,” John Leonard writes in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of her collected nonfiction. As a child, she notes in “Where I Was From,” she was dressed in clothes that “had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite.” These beginnings should by rights have created a hidebound, somewhat horrified observer of the jangling counterculture — or, alternatively, a belatedly fervent weed-smoking hippie. But instead Didion became a dispassionate (and occasionally prescient) outsider who, at least early on, refused to be drawn into any cause except to observe its “vertiginous occlusion,” leaving readers to make their own judgments.

Even fresh out of Berkeley, she was never one to conform to the cultural moment. As the anti-establishment mood intensified, a 30-year-old Didion voted “ardently” for Barry Goldwater; in the 1962 Republican gubernatorial primary, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography, “The Last Love Song,” Nixon was “too liberal for her.” John Wayne was her favorite movie star. She wore simple skirts, stockings, jerseys and pullovers, like the Vogue editor she had once been (and which are itemized, along with cigarettes and bourbon, on the packing list she provided in “The White Album”), even when visiting Huey Newton in the Alameda County Jail. Her political proclivities changed over the years — she was more inclined to condemn the American involvement in Vietnam and other suspect foreign enterprises — but for me there was generally something insular about her take on public events. There are exceptions: Her 1991 article for The New York Review about the false conviction of five Black youths in the Central Park jogger case is Didion at her best.

There is no denying Didion’s skill as a writer, the sentences that sometimes sparkle like cut glass and at other times read like casually jotted notes in a journal, filled with cinematic details. (And, at worst, a pseudo, freshly arrived at profundity.) Perhaps her greatest gift is her ability to transpose what is essentially a solipsistic outlook, specializing in malaise, into a form of bleak collective truth. She does so in that strangely attenuated lapidary tone of hers, a tone of High Weariness, which many of her characters share — most famously in her second novel, “Play It as It Lays.” “I never in my life had any plans,” says Maria Wyeth, the desolate, skinless starlet who flittingly inhabits the narrative when she’s not aimlessly driving on the freeway — although all the characters, vulnerable or jaded, speak in the same clipped, hopeless patois. “None of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.” I was a fan of this deadly little book when I read it the first, second and third times — I even taught the text with reverent attention. Then I gradually realized that after each reading, this skeletal novel — which hinges on the idea of life as a failed beauty contest — invariably slipped off my mind, save for a few ominous, epigrammatic observations.

Didion’s voice exudes a uniquely distanced sort of intimacy, messaging “come close” in one sentence and then “stay away” in the next. It recalls that of her literary role model, Ernest Hemingway (whose stories she would type and retype in order to teach herself how to write), and would go on to influence a lot of deadpan prose — Ann Beattie’s to Amy Hempel’s to Raymond Carver’s. For the social media generation, arguably, the coolness and terseness of her style, suited as it is to a certain kind of inchoate emotional pain, is a beacon leading them away from the chaos of their own distress.

We all have split selves, perhaps writers most of all. Where Didion stands out is in her preternatural ability to draw on either — sometimes both — sides of herself as it pleases her, in an almost transactional manner. Her ever intimated-at anxiety feeds the surgical, snippy quality of her perceptions, just as the projected vision of herself as a frail, radically neurotic young woman with only the most tentative of convictions about her talent obscures the relentlessness of her drive. “I thought so little of myself as a writer that summer,” she recounts in the opening essay of “After Henry,” a volume of her nonfiction, “that I was obscurely ashamed to go to dinner with yet another editor, ashamed to sit down again and discuss this ‘work.’” And yet a close friend of hers during the 1950s commented that “I never saw ambition like that.” The enigma is all.

It suggests something about us that a writer with as few perceptible convictions as Didion continues to captivate the reading public: I think often of a scene in her nephew Griffin Dunne’s documentary, “The Center Cannot Hold,” in which her only response to watching a 5-year-old lick an LSD tab off the floor is to deem the incident (journalistic) “gold.” Or of the passage in “The White Album” when, like some demon stylist, Didion buys a dress at I. Magnin for the Manson family member Linda Kasabian to wear to the Tate-LaBianca trials: What does she think she’s doing? Perhaps it is her postmodern belief that no unitary meaning is constitutively possible — that nothing means anything, murder trial or Celine campaign — which appeals to our cynical, somewhat arrested sense that disorder is the name of the game. Meaning does not, as we all know, come ready-made; it requires an adult wish and a concerted effort to impose a pattern, to make sense of the insensible. In this way, Didion’s work tragically, if unwittingly, anticipates our bewildered, agitated and insolubly divided culture, where the void she stared into so unflinchingly has become the climate in which we live.

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