When I first read Joan Didion, I was young enough that my favorite author was still whomever I had read last. Reading “The White Album” (1979) matured me out of that. Didion’s first line in that book — “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — was the first line of published prose I had ever marked up with pen. I still reference it on a regular basis in conversations with friends, and sometimes also in seminar.
So the irony of Didion’s latest work, which contains no complete stories — only notes — is not lost on me.
Two excerpts from the author’s famous notebooks comprise “South and West: From a Notebook,” the slender volume published by Alfred Knopf this month. The first and much more substantial, “Notes on the South,” traces a meandering road trip she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. The second, “California Notes,” runs just a dozen or so pages and comprises a meditation on California, a place that has preoccupied Didion throughout her career. Didion grew up in Sacramento and spent many years in Los Angeles. She wrote “California Notes” in 1976 while covering the Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco.
Didion admits to the reader at the outset that the excerpts represent, in some sense, failures. Didion and Dunne left for the South because she had thought her experience there “might be a piece,” which, until now, it never was. And she went to San Francisco in 1976 after telling Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, that she would cover Patty Hearst for the magazine, which she never did (“I thought the trial had some meaning for me — because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true”).
Most reviewers have rejected this characterization of “South and West” as a failure. (Given that Didion went ahead with publishing it, she likely has as well.) “South and West” is a written work, and as long as we are talking about writing, we are talking about an arena in which this icon of American letters excels. True, the impressionistic structure of the book, with the connections between its anecdotes vague at best, keeps it from ascending to the heights of peak Didion (“The White Album,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1969), “Where I Was From” (2003)). But even in these impressions the reader can see the magic this author can make with the language.
It seems to be in vogue for reviewers of Didion’s work to include quoted examples of her literary prowess, as if they were surprising. The “Also by Joan Didion” page at the start of “South and West” lists 15 titles, a few fiction and most nonfiction. If you have read any of them — or any of Didion’s essays published elsewhere — it will not surprise you to learn that, even in draft form, Didion’s words have a way of sucking one in.
About New Orleans: “The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: The atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.”
In Clarksdale, Mississippi: “I was in a place where ‘Sunday’ still existed as it did in my grandmother’s house, a leadening pause in the week, a day of boredom so extreme as to be exhausting.”
About life in California: “At the center of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls in the Sierra. The Pacific still trembles in its bowl. The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake. Rattlers in the dry grass. Sharks beneath the Golden Gate.”
Didion has been famous for something like half a century for her exquisite manner of identifying the emptiness behind American life. Her signature style will be enough to get the authors’ devotees to shell out for a copy of “South and West”. But there’s also a compelling reason for the non-devoted — for those who don’t, for instance, remember precisely where they were when they first read “The White Album” or “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — to pick up the book.
Some of the details Didion collects in “Notes on the South” seem, as Michiko Kakutani ’76 of The New York Times put it, “weirdly prescient” of the fractures in our current political situation. Didion, who has spent most of her adult life in Los Angeles and New York, was a coastal elite’s coastal elite before the term was even coined. The South she renders is most striking as an anachronism, a place where in 1970 “the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Didion explains her road trip there as the result of a vague sense that the region “had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: The future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
Maybe she knew something before we did.