Joan Didion: my refuge from lousy writing

A Joan Didion book is like a pearl: compressed, beautiful, and hard as a rock.

Maria Wyeth, the infamously detached protagonist of Didion’s novel "Play It As It Lays," says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing."

Working in the book business definitely has its pluses: free books in excessive quantity, which I get paid to read; colleagues who like to talk about comma splices; and the inherited authority (decidedly undeserved) to tell other people what they should be reading. It also has its minuses and perhaps the biggest one is that with quantity and quality do not always keep pace. In other words, I read a lot of bad books. Actually, I read a relatively small number of bad books but I read a whole lot of mediocre ones. There comes a point – after I’ve read one too many lousy galleys – that I give up and retreat back to the safety of the backlist. And I am currently hiding out between the coverboards of Joan Didion’s formidable oeuvre.

What makes books lousy, besides the authors who write them, is (1) an excess of emotion on the page – the emotion of the author, not that of the characters (2) clumsy sentences (which lay the foundation for clumsy paragraphs and clumsy chapters…) and (3) too many adjective and adverbs and not enough concrete details. By contrast, Didion’s books are precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice (whether it be her own in her essays and non-fiction or that of her characters in her novels) set against the utter disarray – “disorder was its own point” – of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.

Polarities are Didion’s specialty – vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, violence and helplessness, despair and hope, personal and cultura – and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure. You feel like there is a spring too tightly wound buried somewhere that you cannot see and that at any moment is going to tear the pages – the world – apart. The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria Wyeth, the infamously detached protagonist of Didion’s novel "Play It As It Lays" who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.”

Didion’s characters, and Didion herself, have trouble in the world. They have trouble with the world. In “The White Album,” an essay covering the social, political, and personal culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Didion excerpts her own psychiatric report from a clinic where she was an outpatient during that period: “In June of this year patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. A thorough medical evaluation elicited no positive findings.” Didion then goes on to say, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

“A place,” Didion writes, “belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Didion proves that the same is true of a time period, a person, or a memory. She makes her obsessions your obsessions – no matter what they are.

The image I have in my mind of Joan Didion is that of an oyster: tiny, tough, and surface-worn. Someone who takes in grains of sand one speck at a time, and through constant pressure and wearing spits back out a pearl. Compressed, beautiful, and hard as a rock.

In writing about Didion, I am not saying anything that everyone else hasn’t already said. If there is value in this telling it is simply that I am saying it again. Here. Now. And that it could send new readers to her work and old readers back again. So, in no particular order, here are the books of hers that I cannot live without: "Play It As It Lays," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "The White Album," "A Book of Common Prayer," and "A Year of Magical Thinking."

Also, keep an eye out for "Blue Nights," her next book, which comes out this fall.

Rachel Meier blogs regularly about books for the Monitor.

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