Mid-way through this week, I realised that I was listening to a playlist made up exclusively of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, and reading books exclusively by Joan Didion. Only my subconscious knows why I chose to include Joni in my Joan-fest, but the presence of Baez is easily justified – if Baez sings Dylan ever needs any justification – by Didion’s wonderful essay on her, Where the Kissing Never Stops.
The Didion-only reading list is harder to explain. It’s been two weeks since, in a dehydrated and pandemically-anxious haze I picked up A Book of Common Prayer in Hatchards. Since then, aside from really rather rude interruptions from my degree (Shakespeare, not now darling), and my job (who wants to read current journalism when you can read about 1960s San Francisco or 1980s Miami), Didion is all I have read. Rather embarrassingly, given the wealth of other things I should have been doing, I’ve made my way through three novels, two essay collections, and one-book length essay. As I type, I am reliably informed that Jeff Bezos himself is bringing two more titles to my door.
When I first thought about writing about Didion, I was drawn to her fiction. Play It as It Lays is probably Didion’s best known novel. It’s a slow, quiet exploration of mental breakdown and fragility. Everything is saturated in colour and soaked in sweat, but all the action occurs at a distance. For both Maria Wyeth – the woman whose life dissolves before her eyes – and the reader, it is as if you are watching a particularly tumultuous melodrama whilst lying prostrate at the bottom of a pool: everything is visible, but confused on the surface, and any sound is incomprehensible. One move and everything is irreconcilably obscured.
At the centre of A Book of Common Prayer is a similarly vulnerable woman: Charlotte Douglas’s life-story is undeniably tragic but Didion, and her narrator Grace, tells it in such a way that the tragedy seems almost commonplace; it would be rude to dwell on it. Didion’s heroines are unfailingly troubled and unfailingly perilously slim; Didion is Sally Rooney’s far darker, and far more heart-breaking ancestor. Whereas millennial fiction is preoccupied by narrating the ravages of an intense interior life, Didion’s fiction remains at a distance – and is all the more unnerving for doing so.
But to consider Didion’s fiction divorced from her essays and journalism is impossible. This is the woman who, in her essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, wrote that ‘My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point’. Her fiction is no exception – the obsession of bearing ‘witness’ to another women’s struggle in A Book of Common Prayer is a journalistic, personal one; a statement of a life’s work put into narrative. And it is this coherence between fiction and journalism which is a part of the brilliance of Didion – her work, imagined or real, embellished or plain, is a wholesale evocation of twentieth century America, and the wonder and importance of writing.
Over a year ago I was introduced to the essay ‘Goodbye to all that’ in an allusion in Hannah Sullivan’s brilliant ‘Three Poems’. The poem – shamefully stolen from a boy I no longer talk to, and still stolen as I look at it now – is a stinging, urgent exploration of youth in New York, but the brilliance of the original essay dances in comparison. Didion’s descriptions of her own life are so much like those that appear in her fiction – you lurch from moment to moment, feeling the joy, delight, and hurt. But Didion is aware of the limits of the written word – despite the intimacy there is a delicate, near-painful awareness of a text that makes no apology that it has to distance you from the experience. There is not a hint of coincidence about the fact that the open tabs on my laptop read ‘another degree new york?’ and ‘how expensive masters?’.
And amidst deeply personal essays and the reminder that any text bears the weight of its writer’s self-obsession and self-preoccupation are incredibly important works of social commentary. Nobody can write about Didion and not mention ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ – the essay about 60s San Francisco that ends with Susan: a five-year-old high on acid – but there are less-famous gems throughout her work. Take this last paragraph of ‘On Morality’:
But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognise that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with ‘morality’. Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then that is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.
Didion wrote that in 1965; it is not facetious, I think, to say that we have been ignoring a prophet.
There are so many arguments I would like to make about Didion at this point – Didion as a balsam for America; Didion’s work as that which all millennial, emotional fiction is derivative from; Didion as a reason to be hopeful for, and wary of, the future. But I suppose whatever I say can be reduced to this one point. In a world of fragmented, rushed, knee-jerk communication, and manufactured hostility and artificial debate, anything Didion writes is an antidote. And, perhaps more crucially, there is still the possibility to wholly, completely, nearly un-critically fall in love with something. I say un-critically, but if there is one thing I have learnt from reading so much Didion in the last two weeks, it is to treasure the ability to scrutinise and criticise.
I make no apology for putting my love-affair with Didion at the centre of this essay – my stake has to be in the unmentioned girl writing in her pyjamas. Remember what it is to be me: that is always the point.