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Literature: Joan of Art

by Paul Wilner

Joan Didion | Photo courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe.

Death cannot still Didion’s elegiac, stunningly specific literary voice.

First things first.

Joan Didion, whose death on December 23 at age 87 prompted an outpouring of grief and appreciation, was always a California girl.

She explored her family history, including ancestors who were part of the infamous Donner Party (they got away safely), in her 2003 essay collection, Where I Was From. “I was born in Sacramento, and lived in California most of my life,” she wrote. “I learned to swim in the Sacramento and the American, before the dams. … Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma. …” She attended UC Berkeley, studying with the likes of Sinclair Lewis biographer Mark Schorer, before heading to New York after winning a Vogue essay competition in 1956.

There, she met her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, but returned to the Bay Area for the signature piece in her career-making collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she turned a pitiless eye on the burnouts and runaways who were already populating Haight- Ashbury. (Those who found her descriptions of that scene too judgmental might recall that Beatle George Harrison voiced similar concerns after visiting “Hippie Hill” in Golden Gate Park — and that Didion herself was merely reporting what she saw.)

She also came to San Francisco to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone with a keen understanding of the Hillsborough milieu the heiress grew up in. The piece never ran, but Didion mined that field in her 1977 novel, A Book of Common Prayer, with a character whose daughter joins a terrorist group.

“That was kind of my intention to keep it kind of raw, because it occurred to me when I was doing a lot of reading about death and grief, that nobody told you the raw part, and every one of us has to face it sooner or later.” — Joan Didion

Like a contemporary Edith Wharton, Didion knew the ways of the very rich. This was sometimes confused as snobbish by literalist critics — one of whom recently complained that she dressed stylishly for a jailhouse interview with Black Panther Huey P. Newton. But Didion never pandered — she turned her gimlet eye to dissect the excesses of her class, not celebrate them.

In 1970’s Play It As It Lays, she laid out the bleached landscape of Southern California, along with the anomie of her heroine, Maria Wyeth, who had a fear of freeways, let alone flying. It was a remarkable exercise in minimalist alienation but by no means a portrait of female victimization.

In a Paris Review interview, Didion praised Diane Johnson’s review of Common Prayer: “She suggested that the women were strong to the point of being figures in a romance, that they were romantic heroines rather than actual women in actual situations,” Didion told the publication. “I think that’s probably true. I think I write romances.”

The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage Books)
Since its 2005 initial release with Knopf, Joan Didion’s bestselling memoir about grief endures.

Reached by email in Paris, Johnson described Didion as a “wonderful writer whose bravery in facing her long struggle with Parkinson’s surpassed even her bravery in facing the deaths of her husband and daughter. She was funny, brilliant and a great housekeeper — the only one I know who had a special drawer to keep damp dish towels cold for crisping the salad leaves!’’

In her later career, Didion eschewed fiction to avoid, she said, being targeted with “Miss Lonelyhearts” letters from struggling readers. Instead, she turned to journalism, contributing scathing takedowns of Washington punditry — Bob Woodward may never recover — and the Central Park Five trial.

But she somehow managed to find the emotional strength to address the loss of her husband in 2003 and, not long after, her only daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, two unequaled examples of turning grief into literature. As she told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2005, “I had the sense when I was writing [Magical Thinking] that I wasn’t writing it at all — it was like automatic writing. Everything that was on my mind just came out and got on the page. That was kind of my intention to keep it kind of raw, because it occurred to me when I was doing a lot of reading about death and grief, that nobody told you the raw part, and every one of us has to face it sooner or later.”

The obituaries on Didion described her as a “New Journalist,” but that was a category error about someone who despised labels. She was always, and unutterably, Joan Didion, a category unto herself.

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