Dog Days Classics: Digging Joan Didion in the Age of Feelings

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In her review of 2015’s The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of famed writer Joan Didion, Meghan Daum noted the influence that the California essayist and novelist cast upon many a writer over the years. That The Last Love Song serves as the only biography of Didion, she noted, seemed odd. “Given the number of writers who, especially early in their literary lives, go through a period of Didion-mania intense enough to put most of her vital statistics permanently at their fingertips (the rain-soaked silk curtains in the apartment on 75th Street! the house on Franklin Avenue! the Corvette!),” Daum wrote, “you would think we’d have seen at least as many biographies of her in the past 40 years as have been written about Taylor Swift in the past two (nine, if you must know).”

Count me as a writer who has fallen under Didion’s detached spell; perhaps not as maniacal as to ponder “the rain soaked silk curtains in the apartment on 75th Street!”, but to this day the picture of her in front of the Corvette smoking a cigarette cycles through my mind on endless repeat.

I’ve read several but certainly not all of her books: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, Play It as It Lays, After Henry, and Political Fictions. Her most popular work, The Year of Magical Thinking, remains alien to me; knowing its subject matter, Didion’s coming to terms with life after the demise of her husband John Gregory Dunne, I’ve not had the courage to open its pages. Rather, it’s sat on my desk next to Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke for nearly a decade. That said, Didion’s prose, judging from my contributions to ToM and KCET (it’s almost obscene – cars, fires, and pools serve as just three examples) remains a central influence on my own writing. The knowledge that I still have Magical Thinking in my future– it’s like knowing I have another season of The Wire to watch – both comforts me and stands as a testament to Didion’s style and skill.

Oddly indicative of Didion's vision of late 60's/early 70's L.A.; Howard Coy, "Poster advertisement for a lecture by Robert Geddes, UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Los Angeles, California. Image shows an x-ray of a hand and an architectural drawing," circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Oddly indicative of Didion’s vision of late 60’s/early 70’s L.A.; Howard Coy, “Poster advertisement for a lecture by Robert Geddes, UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Los Angeles, California. Image shows an x-ray of a hand and an architectural drawing,” circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Breaking into Didion via the 1970s

The 1970s have always fascinated me. When I first met my wife, I confessed that I loved Elvis, but not 1950s young, handsome, dynamic Elvis but rather his gold lamé, peanut butter banana burger eating, waistline busting, Las Vegas matinee performance incarnation. After all, anybody can be compelling when they are young and good looking, but can you hold my attention when you’re sucking at the tit of schmaltzy Vegas neon lights?

Other aspects of pop culture from the era appeal to me as well. I loved movies like Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Breaking Away (“they’re cutters man!”), The Graduate, All the President’s Men, and countless more films of what many critics now call the “1970s Golden Age.” It’s a better musical period than is often acknowledged as well. At the beginning of the decade you get the The Stooges, Stevie Wonder, Parliament Funkadelic, Gram Parsons, and Fleetwood Mac; by the end of it, the Clash, the Ramones, and the first hint of Hip Hop.

As an urban historian, one might suggest the 1970s were not the greatest moments for the nation’s cities. In New York, Howard Cosell informed television viewers “The Bronx is Burning”; President Ford told NYC to, as the Daily News put it, “Drop Dead”; David Berkowitz killed people at the order of his dog. In Los Angeles, Charles Manson’s atrocities seemed to encapsulate a decade in which malaise, violence, and paranoia stalked the citizenry. All decades have their positives and negatives, but for whatever reason my Fat Elvis fetish holds true for the 1970s: those years were a hot mess and I love hot messes. I could go on. The larger point being her early essays about late 60s and 1970s California and L.A. proved the perfect introduction to her larger body of work for me.

Didion, particularly in regard to Los Angeles, captured the era like few others. Adopting a “deeply skeptical and ironic perspective on the city,” writes Erica Avila, Didion maintained a calm, almost detached reserve despite the madness about her. “In the maelstrom of brutal murders, brush fires, riots, and the floating world of celebrity happenings, Didion keeps her head cool and her prose taut, writing about the city as if it were an alien world.”[1]

New visions of the city in L.A.; Howard Coy, "The future, new towns, Richard Llewelyn-Davies, Thursday, April Fourth 1974," 1974, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New visions of the city in L.A.; Howard Coy, “The future, new towns, Richard Llewelyn-Davies, Thursday, April Fourth 1974,” 1974, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion delivers a collection of essays touching on suburban homicides, San Francisco runaways, and California’s weather of catastrophe, among other subjects, that literary critic Patrick O’Donnell describes as “startling.” Her novel, Play It As It Lays “depicts the dark side of ‘glittertown’,” a dystopian Hollywood that “is more accurately viewed as a series of snapshots of Southern California in the 1960s and the drift of desire across a landscape where the dream of success for an aspiring celebrity is no different from that of an upwardly mobile suburbanite: a place in the sun, free and immediate access to all that material paradise has to offer, security and visibility, wealth and pleasure,” O’Donnell argues.[2]

This truth extends to the current moment, as an army of reality TV celebrities stalk social media hoping to populate cable channels you’ve never seen, ultimately contending for our attention. A certain presidential contender even draws upon an even more dystopian view of the nation at large than Didion did in 1970s L.A.

As for me, no one would ever describe my writing as Didionesque. Sure, I’ve written fairly extensively about California history at ToM, at KCET, and academically in various journals, but I lack her style. Reading Didion while I lived in SoCal, she captured a certain disconnectedness that I felt about it; I loved Southern California and Los Angeles, but I could hardly claim either as my own. Did it seem dystopian to me? No, but L.A. of the 2000s/2010s symbolized something very different from the city Didion knew in the postwar era. Recently, the New York Times discussed how young artists now decamp for the Southern California metropolis rather than brave an increasingly economically stratified New York which is not say anyone would describe L.A. as affordable but compared to the Big Apple, there are bargains to be had. Yet her vision of the city in the 1960s and 1970s fascinated me, probably in large part because of my own interest in the 1970s. Over the ensuing decades she branched out to cover other cities and themes, and I retrospectively followed her.

At age 40, I’ve lived in several places across the U.S.; born in Norfolk, grew up around Chicago, spent nearly a decade in NYC, six years in SoCal, and several more in D.C. which I now call home. Didion too wandered the nation a bit. She famously absconded for New York from California and started covering politics in the 1980s and 1990s, dedicating more work toward Washington D.C. and presidential campaigns. During the recent Democratic convention Harvard English Professor J.D. Schnepf pointed out Didion’s contribution in this area:

Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed traveling the nation culturally and politically through her books and essays.

More theoretically, as a historian, I’ve always felt like you control what you can, but for much of life we are vessels on a sea of forces so much bigger than us. We keep afloat as best we may. This sort of lack of control, the sense that we put one foot front of the other and move forward, feels central to her earlier work and it appeals to me. “There is no struggle, only enervation in Joan Didion’s Los Angeles,” writes Avila.

Musing on the passing of the 1960s and the dawn of the new decade, Didion drove home this sense of exhaustion. “I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error,” she reflected. “It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity of surprise.”[3] Hardly the triumphant boomerism that Gen Xers felt obliged to swallow for much of our adolescence and young adulthood. Her fatigue and general skepticism remain aspects of her writing to which I intimately relate.

Political Didion and Class

Yet as Daum pointed out in the Atlantic, for some, Didion seems a vestige of another age, casting an aura of elitism that one might think at odds with our current times. “To be a Didion fan is to be a defender of the sharp and brutal edges, a champion of the dispassion, a forgiver—even an appreciator—of the simmering elitism,” Daum writes. “In an era when discussions of privilege and gender have become preoccupations in certain corners of the media and, in some circles, feelings have been granted equal status with facts, it’s interesting to think about how Didion would have fared had she come to New York in 2015 rather than 1955.”

Didion, historian Kevin Starr points out, though she descended from a “staunchly Republican pioneer family”, graduated from Berkeley in the 1950s, and moved to New York to write for Vogue while secreting away hours at night to finish her first novel in 1963, Run River, which itself seemed to critique her own family’s role in the history of postwar suburban development.[4] According to Didion, she spent her high school days, and not by accident mind you, with the kind of people who “hung out at gas stations,” “knocked up girls and married them,” and “had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or Depauw, nor had they even applied.”[5] In other words, she didn’t hang with the student government crowd. This, of course, hardly makes her a liberal but suggests she carried a sharp self-awareness regarding class and her own family’s position.

Didion would hardly rank as an archetypal feminist. “And then, at the exact dispirited moment,” she wrote, “when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class.’”[6] Didion rankled at the idea and found fault with the movement’s theorists. “To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Everywomen with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely,” she wrote. “This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.”[7]

Didion's political spirit animal?; Marion S. Triskosko, "Interview: Berry [i.e., Barry] Goldwater / MST." September 25, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Didion’s political spirit animal?; Marion S. Triskosko, “Interview: Berry [i.e., Barry] Goldwater / MST.” September 25, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Clearly, few would categorize Didion as a liberal. Rumor has it she voted Republican for most of her life and her late husband would sometimes kiddingly mock her “neo-conservative” ideals. “I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter,” she confided in 2001. Avila argues that in her earlier years as a writer, Didion “anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the United States,” though over time she drifted leftward.[8]

Of course the way Didion describes her shift seems more a matter of internal conservative politics than necessarily an embrace of liberalism. “[S]hocked and to a curious extent personally offended by the enthusiasm with which California Republicans who had jettisoned an authentic conservative (Goldwater) were rushing to embrace Ronald Reagan, I registered as a Democrat, the first member of my family … to do so.”[9]

In the current political moment and the context of her comments on Barry Goldwater fifteen years ago, I find her political views even more fascinating. For all her conservative bonafides, Didion acknowledged the federal government’s role in creating California. “From the beginning,” writes Kevin Starr, “Didion argued, the federal government, representing the entire people of the United States, had brought American California into being and had been paying most of its bill through spending on defense and public works.”[10] Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical assault on the federal government did not win her over.

Not exactly "besties"; Nancy Davis Reagan, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, in the White House, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Not exactly “besties”; Nancy Davis Reagan, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, in the White House, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Unsurprisingly, She would prove no friend of the Reagans, infamously describing Nancy Reagan’s smile as “a study in insincerity.” In 1992’s After Henry, she portrayed Reagan as a mystical supernatural figure, akin to Peter Seller’s Chance from Being There and again depicted Nancy in less than glowing terms, describing her most “endearing quality [as] this little girl’s fear of being left out, of not having the best friends and not going to the parties in the biggest houses.” Didion didn’t hold back. “She collected slights. She took refuge in a kind of piss-elegance, a fanciness … in using words like ‘inappropriate,’” Didion wrote.[11]

President Reagan, on the other hand, dating back to his days as governor, felt things the rest of us missed; he operated on “distinctly special information,” noted Didion. “With the transforming power of the presidency, this special information that no one else understood – these big pictures, these high concepts – took on a magical quality, and some people in the White House came to believe that they had in their possession, sharpening his own pencils in the Oval Office, the Fisher King himself. The keeper of the grail, the source of that ineffable contact with the electorate that was in turn the source of power.”[12]

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Megan Day hailed After Henry as “an overlooked classic” and the specific article as a forgotten but crystal clear distillation of the coming political age. “More than twenty years hence, the piece remains a trenchant account of the political-economic shift to dedicated neoliberalism in the halls of government.”

During the 1988 Hollywood writer’s guild strike, Didion seemed only too aware of her precarious position, though ironically enough it took the 1988 Democratic National Convention to draw this out of her. While, she viewed fellow writers who had crossed picket lines with “a coolness bordering on distaste, as if we had gone back forty years, and they had named names,” she admitted that she struggled to fully explain the strike’s dynamics.[13] At the convention, things crystalized for her. When she noticed Paul Mazursky, a director she knew, had an all-access pass, she asked if she as a writer working the event might borrow it for a bit. He’d love to he told her but thought it a bad idea. “He seemed surprised that I had asked, and uncomfortable that I had breached the natural order of the community as we both knew it: directors and actors and producers, I should have understood, have floor passes,” Didion noted. “Writers do not, which is why they strike.”[14] Granted, it’s not exactly the proletariat at the gate, but it’s more than some critics acknowledge.

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In the end, as Daum notes, Didion’s class pretensions, whatever they may be don’t matter. Sure, “she might be deemed too haughty to tolerate, the ultimate white girl,” admits Daum, but that hardly takes away from her accomplishments. She proved an icon for a generation of women and writers, be they male or female. To paraphrase Jeremih, in the parlance of our time, Didion “Gave No Fuks.” We ask writers to be authentic, to shed pretense. If she’d been a man, wouldn’t we credit her for “telling it like it is”? Didion did just that, and her long career arc stretches across the field from urban ethnography to first person political punditry to rueful memoir. Her work continues to capture truths about American society – as a people and a nation. For me she remains a both window into a past I can only know through books and popular culture and a future I can only imagine through her insights.

[1] Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184.

[2] Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 62-63.

[3] Joan Didion, “Morning After the Sixties” in The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 206.

[4] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 286-287.

[5] Joan Didion, “Insider Baseball”, in Political Fictions, (New York: Vintage, 2001), 19.

[6] Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement” in The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 110.

[7] Didion, “The Women’s Movement”, 115.

[8] Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles”, 186.

[9] Joan Didion, Political Fictions, (New York: Vintage, 2001), 7.

[10] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 323.

[11] Joan Didion, “In the Realm of the Fisher King”, in After Henry, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 39.

[12] Didion, “In the Realm of the Fisher King”, 43.

[13] Didion, “Los Angeles Days”, in After Henry, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 172.

[14] Didion, “Los Angeles Days”, 173.

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