Counting with Joan Didion, the archpriestess of cool

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Even in “The Year of Magical Thinking”, written in the wake of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and generally regarded as Didion’s most eloquent and moving work, she cannot help but point out that she is the president of the board of her cooperative; or the name of the store in Beverly Hills where she bought a bathrobe; or that his agent is on the phone with the New York Times obituary editor in the hours after Dunne’s death; or that she and her husband dined at posh spots like Morton’s and the Bistro, where they received the coveted corner banquette, while in Los Angeles. She takes her access to power for granted – “If my mother were suddenly hospitalized in Tunis, I could arrange for the American consul… to get her on an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris” – and in between, he is left to bear the indignities imposed by paramedics and social workers imposed on ordinary people.

While there is nothing specifically objectionable about these details, there is, in my opinion, something annoying about them, a twitch of unconscious arrogance that undermines the overall emotional appeal of the book, in which the writer also manages to capture the hide-and-seek quality of the daily rituals of mourning. Curiously, despite all his insistent elitism, young readers embraced Didion. For three decades, each time I ask my students to share the work of a writer whose prose they admire, there are always several plays by Didion. Literary reputations come and go, but Didion is eternal, the naïve observer who never has wool over her eyes, the dice-rolling croupier who never overestimates the stakes.

Early on, Didion got points for being shockproof despite — or perhaps precisely because of — the fact that she grew up in a well-to-do family in conservative Sacramento, where rosewood dressers and silver paintbrushes were passed down. from generation to generation. “Didions has lived in California, with a sense of ranchero entitlement, since the early 19th century,” writes John Leonard in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of his collected nonfiction. As a child, she notes in “Where I Came From”, she dressed in clothing that “had a strong Pre-Raphaelite element”. These beginnings should, in their own right, have created a stubborn and somewhat horrified observer of the jangling counterculture – or, alternatively, a belated and avid weed-smoking hippie. But instead, Didion became an unbiased (and sometimes prescient) outsider who, at least initially, refused to be drawn into any cause other than observing his “dizzy occlusion,” leaving readers to carry 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; during the 1962 Republican gubernatorial primary, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography, “The Last Love Song”, Nixon was “too liberal for her”. John Wayne was his favorite movie star. She wore simple skirts, stockings, singlets and sweaters, like the Vogue editor she had been (and which are listed, along with cigarettes and bourbon, on the packing list she provided in “The White Album”), even while visiting Huey Newton in the Alameda County Jail. Her political leanings changed over the years — she was more inclined to condemn American involvement in Vietnam and other suspicious foreign ventures — but to me there was generally something insular about her view of public events. There are exceptions: his 1991 article for The New York Review on the false conviction of five young black people in the Central Park jogger case is Didion at his best.

There’s no denying Didion’s skill as a writer, the sentences that sometimes shimmer like cut glass and at other times read like casually written notes in a diary, filled with cinematic detail. (And, at worst, a pseudonym, new to the depths.) Perhaps his greatest gift is his ability to transpose what is essentially a solipsistic, unease-focused view into a form of dark collective truth. She does this in her oddly subdued pithy tone, a tone of great weariness, which many of her characters share – most famously in her second novel, “Play It as It Lays”. “I’ve never had plans in my life,” says Maria Wyeth, the apologetic, skinless starlet who inhabits the narrative when she’s not driving aimlessly down the highway – although all the characters, vulnerable or jaded, speak in the same cut tone, without hope. patois. “None of this makes sense, none of this adds up.” I was a fan of this deadly little book when I read it the first, second and third time – I even taught the text with reverent attention. Then I gradually realized that after each reading, the skeletal novel – which relies on the idea of ​​life as a failed beauty contest – invariably slips my mind, except for a few disturbing epigrammatic observations. .

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