The first thoughts about Joan Didion are not reasonable. The present literature about her is a hagiography that does not entirely trust itself; there is a vacancy at the centre of it that I call the ‘but surely’. But surely if these essays were published now, the hagiography says to itself at three in the morning, they would meet with a different reception? But surely if she wrote today, her ideas about feminism would be more in line with ours? But surely, for all her pointillism, she is failing to draw the conclusions we would most like to see? The hagiography turns the pillow over, looking for a cool spot. How much can we really rely on someone who loved The Doors? Why do all her last lines give the impression that she’s speaking from beyond the veil? What, in the end, is she actually saying? But surely she has told us that herself, and all along. What she is saying, standing in the corner of every piece, holding her yellow legal pad and watching, is: ‘I was there.’
The Centre Will Not Hold, the new Netflix documentary directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, lacks the three-in-the-morning question. It begins with a bridge and a blur, close-ups of bare feet and fresh typewriter ink. A rat crawls over a hippie, to show that in the Swinging Sixties, anything can happen. When Didion herself appears, her mouth is bright with lipstick and amused. Her gestures are as large as fireworks. She puts her whole self into the process of speaking, moving her hands as if she’s flinging handfuls of certainty away from her body. Charcoal cashmere and a slender chain; her hair the correct camel of a good coat. In a scene where she reads her own writing, she looks happy, and tastes one or two words longer than the others, for their well-chosenness. It calls to mind Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays, distinguishing between ‘the right bracelet and the amusing impersonation of the right bracelet and the bracelet that was merely a witless copy’.
It seems like the kind of documentary a nephew would make about an aunt who was not Joan Didion. We zoom in on the dark comprehension of her eyes in snapshots, sift for her face in photos of her pioneer ancestors and find it. The music is soft encouraging swells. The camera waits for her to weep. Dunne’s voice, when he speaks to her, is the voice of someone coaxing her to eat. Perhaps that is the point, even the value of the project. We are seeing a Joan we would not be seeing if she weren’t talking to a member of her family – talking, perhaps, to the child version of him, to whom paradise days are attached.
Still, there are oversized clues to the fact that the subject is out of the ordinary. At one point Dunne asks her how it felt to see the five-year-old child on acid when she was reporting in Haight-Ashbury. Her face works, and you are expecting her to say: ‘It was horrifying.’ Instead a light breaks, and she says: ‘It was gold.’
There is one indelible moment. Dunne is talking about their first meeting when he was about five years old, a much anticipated occasion on which he unwittingly showed her one of his balls. Now his grey-haired adult self is holding her, square and masculine; the camera is holding her. A sweep of her hair is pinned back with a clip. She is somewhere between pure delight and the edge of tears. She keeps almost saying something, her laughter coming in transparent little hiccups, but in the end she lets him speak – even rests in his speaking, the way you saw her do in old joint interviews with her husband. Dunne says she was the only one who did not laugh at him. He says he always loved her for that.
I thought of her essay about John Wayne – she loved him, and not just because he gathered the whole American West in a man. It was also because, as Katharine Hepburn observed, it was so thrilling to lean against him. Great like a tree, a place to rest. And didn’t she want to rest? Weren’t her burdens so heavy? In youth she had rested against the strength, the solid thereness of the West; in adulthood, didn’t she become paralysed when she felt it could no longer hold her? When she headed to San Francisco in 1967, wasn’t it because she suddenly saw America as a power that could no longer shoulder its people?
Order, she sought order. ‘Order and control are terribly important to me,’ she told Michiko Kakutani in 1979, as she caressed ‘a tiny green pillbox’. ‘I would love to just have control over my own body – to stop the pain, to stop my hand from shaking. If I were five feet ten and had a clear gaze and a good strong frame, I would not have such a maniacal desire for control because I would have it.’
There is no new information here, because we have had it already from Didion herself. We know she was born in 1934, and we see the disturbed and settled dust of the Sacramento Valley where she was raised, and we hear the family conversations about land changing hands. Her father, Frank Reese, an army air corps officer, was dogged by depression to the point of hospitalisation. Her mother, Eduene, last in a long line, stamped with all the attributes we might expect a woman named Eduene to have, and provider of the particular totems her daughter would come to assign weight to in her turn. We are familiar with the ‘insistently ironic’ first story Didion wrote at the age of five, in which a freezing woman wakes to find she is actually dying of heat at the edge of the desert. We know about the seven years at Vogue, after Berkeley, where she learned to choose the right word; we know about the forty-year marriage to John Gregory Dunne, who was ‘between me and the world’ – though it is surprising to hear her speak of how it happened, now, at 82: ‘Well I went to Hartford, and fell in love with his family, and determined that I was going to marry him. And did.’ Here her face becomes heavy with the curse of heterosexuality. ‘I don’t know what fall in love means. It’s not part of my world. But I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue. I liked being a couple. I liked having somebody there. It could not have been somebody who wasn’t a writer. Only because that person would not have had any patience with me.’
We know about Dunne’s temper, which is dismissed in a brief exchange. ‘It was not a good time,’ Didion says, about the bleak years of their marriage that inspired Dunne’s ‘fictionalised memoir’ Vegas, and then brightens on the instant. ‘Actually it was a wonderful book, it turned out.’
Coca-Colas in the morning. Yellow Corvettes and Vanda orchids, the shuffle of the surf in Malibu and the view from the window of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. There are the beads on her newly born daughter’s wrist that spell N.I. for ‘No Information’; there is the territory on the map for which they named her, Quintana Roo. There is John baptising Quintana in the sink the night they adopted her so that she might not, God forbid, go to limbo. There he is at the dinner table with his left hand raised, slumped motionless and Didion saying, automatically, ‘Don’t do that’ – and there is Quintana at 39 in the ICU, dying of acute pancreatitis. We can even, if you’re still with us, travel all the way back and tell you how Didion is descended from people who ‘parted ways’ with the Donners out West, which means the story she was raised with was one that showed how it could all go to hell in an instant, how unexpectedly a party could turn into people eating each other. We know enough for her to become a background against which we try to make sense of the rest.
The documentary leans on her two memoirs towards the end, and quotes in their entirety the final sentences of Blue Nights.
I know what it is I am now experiencing.
I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.
In the American editions of these memoirs, the lighter letters on the cover of The Year of Magical Thinking spell ‘JOHN’. The lighter letters on the cover of Blue Nights spell ‘NO’. In Blue Nights she is not just saying goodbye to her daughter, she is saying goodbye to her gift. To the way her mind works. When she goes, the witness to her daughter’s life goes, that inner film of her face on every blue day of her life. It is not a mistake that the rhythm of that last line echoes Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘for here there is no place/that does not see you.’ ‘You’re safe,’ was the refrain she gave Quintana over the long course of her illness, long past the point where it was meaningful or even true. ‘You’re safe. I’m here.’
‘I have figured out her rhythm,’ I once told a friend in a diner in Iowa City, though I will not tell you what I ate, or what I was wearing. (A hamburger? Some sort of shirt?) ‘Her sentences are smooth, are smooth, are smooth, and then three-quarters of the way through the landing gear drops down.’ Her syntax returns to itself at the end, because it belongs to the structures of Henry James. This, combined with a straightforwardness of diction from Hemingway, gives you the sensation that you are going somewhere, then landing. And all the while you’re flying, music is piped in, poetry, a high-toned jingle in the collective head.
I recalled that as I read South and West, which must hold a curious place in Didion’s oeuvre as the book she could not write. The second section is comprised of notes she took during the Patty Hearst trial, which eventually led to a broader book about California called Where I Was From. (I prefer these notes to that book; they exhibit a murderous compression.) The first section, and the majority, is comprised of notes she made during a month she spent in the South with her husband in 1970; at the beginning, she explains that, ‘at the time, I had thought it might be a piece.’
It was not. The elements are there: around the hotel swimming pools, the Confederate flag towels contrast with her own cosmopolitan bikini. She writes of trains, highways, snakes, kudzu – networks and infrastructure, which she understands and on which she relies, versus biology, overgrowth and festering, which threaten to suck her in and incorporate her. She interviews the white owner of a ‘black radio station’. The dialogues of strangers shed their usual light. When it’s all too much, she escapes to the cool air-conditioning of the mall. Her husband drives but is not there. He is not much mentioned, except when she says ‘we’.
At the centre of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls in the Sierra. The Pacific still trembles in its bowl. The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake. Rattlers in the dry grass. Sharks beneath the Golden Gate. In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
They are convinced, but we believe. The West is the sunset all heroes walk towards. But she understands by instinct that if the South is interrogated too far, too deeply, then all the myths we tell ourselves about America collapse.
It is a slim entry in her canon, but for the first time in a long while, I felt as if someone was on track. She was right that the South was both a begetting stain and an arrow to the future; the future it pointed to is here. She was right that it was the ‘secret source’, the ‘psychic centre’. It must have been that powerful, or Americans would not today be living in its mind – among those ‘secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumour, hearsay, haphazard trickledown’ she invoked in ‘Notes towards a Dreampolitik.’
To revisit Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the paperback editions just released by 4th Estate, is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays, the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar – if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life. Read ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’ and see if you do not recognise the man in the modern scene. ‘Actually I was interested not in the revolution but in the revolutionary.’ Where things are moving too fast she fixes a focal point. She captures the way the language becomes more memetic, more meaningless just as the ground begins to swell under the feet – as if the herd, sensing some danger, must consolidate its responses. Her adept turn to political writing in the 1980s and 1990s showed the same prescience; if you are tuned to where the language goes strange, you will anticipate the narrative they’re going to try to sell you.
She herself is now powerful, runs the criticism. There is a danger in her, and it is the same danger she suggests in ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’: that the stories first tell us what it was like, and then they tell us how to live. Like the desert, she imposes a style. ‘Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.’
There is something to this. Her essays take place, for many people, in some innermost hotel room. We are there as she unpacks the items on her iconic list, sets the bottle of bourbon on the desk, calls home to check the time, lies down in the dark when the aura comes. Why are we closer to her? Why do we feel, along with her, the shaking of the hand narrowing down and down to the steadiness of the pen? A peculiarity of my own: among all her books, I had not read The Year of Magical Thinking, because my own husband, whom I married very young, on whom I depend and in whom I store half of my information, has a family history of heart attacks – to be more specific, the men on his father’s side all drop dead in their homes at the age of 59. ‘As long as I don’t read it,’ I often thought to myself, and thought no further, though I kept the book on a low shelf. Whenever the swimming-pool colour of the spine caught my eye I saw a kitchen, and a telephone on the wall with a long curling cord, and my own hands not knowing what to do. ‘As long as I save it, against that day.’
This is personal, but we have seen both the deep personal and the wide diagnostic in her, it is all tied together: South and West, the fracturing 1960s, a line of ancestry across the country. The earth rucking up like a dress bought where, bought when. The wagon train and the plane rides of the sentences. Someone’s on track. The assay scales and the choosing of the words. Her grandfather a geologist, herself a seismograph, her daughter sobbing ‘Let me be in the ground.’ The cowboy and the one who strides beside him, the Broken Man, the childhood bogeyman Quintana and she so feared. These things are together in our reading. Through long investigation into fracture she has brought them together, and somehow we are there in the centre of her thinking, in the place where she is working it all out. We are told it does not hold. It holds.
Perhaps she promises that synthesis, even of a time like this, is still possible. ‘I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ Perhaps she offers the feeling that if you write the facts down, the facts might somehow remain standing at the end, after the end. There is a small, unobtrusive reporter in the corner. She has outlasted everything else.
Other observations are there. She sounds, at times, as if a huge crow is about to land on her right shoulder. She breathes the Santa Ana instead of the air. It would be possible to write a parody of her novels called Desert Abortion – in a Car. Possible, but why? The best joke you could make wouldn’t touch her. Not the solidity of what she has done, which can be leaned against like John Wayne. Which, for all the claims of its paranoia, dislocation, fragility offers what none of her critics would ever suspect: an assurance of thereness, of hereness, of that good strong frame. Rest.