04 May 2008

Five Favourite Revolutionaries: Joan Didion

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here of a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling. I suppose this period began around 1966 and continued until 1971. During those five years I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another […] This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did […] In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.

— Joan Didion

Some people, perhaps many people, would hardly consider Joan Didion revolutionary. She is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Her writings, especially those about American society in the sixties, struck many readers at the time and afterward as overly self-involved, politically reactionary, and strangely disconnected from the flows of the zeitgeist. Yet, it is precisely this disconnection, this anomie from the passions of people, politics, and society, that distinguish her writing for me, as if in her dissonance she attains a sharper understanding of what is happening, a critical eye that cuts through hyperbole like a laser.

I cannot remember when I first read her work, perhaps it was her famous essay on Haight Ashbury hippies or the stylistic paradigm copied by younger, popular authors of the late eighties and early nineties, like Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt, that brought me back to the source. But the essay I remember most, the essay I re-read often and quote from, is “The White Album,” reproduced in the anthology of the same name. For me, this is pure Didion, the pinnacle of her descriptive methodology that flows through her most recent, affecting work, The Year of Magical Thinking.

In fact, reading and re-reading this latter work, I was struck by how the text resonated even more strongly with a familiarity of her other, older works, and how The Year of Magical Thinking was the logical place her work would lead: scrupulous, disinfected, painfully introspective. Didion spares no one, including herself, in her quest for understanding, for comprehension, for critical perspective. This bracing rigour has always drawn me to her work.

Of course, the particular resonances of her life that match mine are compelling. A native Californian, her interpretive standpoints are grounded in loss and the cataloguing of change, not necessarily via sentimentality, but through a desire to make sense, and in this manner, connect. Critical reception of her work has often focused on her disconnection, her idiosyncratic self-appraisal, her bikinis and Hawaii and neuroses, but often such criticism misses this larger point of disconnected connection. Just because one is outside does not mean one cannot see in, and use that position to offer a useful descriptive.

Didion’s perspective is shaped by the foundational influences of her generation, the “Silent” one, and refracted through leaving home in pursuit of a metropolitan career in New York, and thus seeing California and herself from a different standpoint. Her return to the state in the sixties, becoming a leading mainstream journalistic chronicler for its tempestuous transformations of the era, gave her writing a perhaps unnaturally powerful resonance, one naturally resented by those who read the events of the time in another light.

Yet, Didion’s moonscape-style of description is apropos to a certain western, Californian interpretive stance: living on the edge of what is possible, physically and emotionally and spiritually and materially. She is one of several leading authorial voices that have attempted to delineate a Californian perspective on the world, and her sparse prose and wry emotional observations, as sharp as a scalpel, are in some ways akin to what André Breton once said of the work of Frida Kahlo: a ribbon around a bomb.

What my identification with her dissonance, her dislocation, her clinical introspection of the wound, potentially says about my own standpoint is revealing. We search for narrative, and upon finding none, attempt to make sense of the resulting chaos, partially out of an implicit, trained desire for narrative, but more importantly stemming from an unhealthy attraction to the distinctions between expectation and reality, between empiricism and dreamwork, between utopia and dystopia, the lines of which are closer to the surface in a place like California, but are present everywhere in the American unconscious.

Didion taught me a new way of making sense of being Californian, where I am from, and flowing from that standpoint a rigorous stylistic technique for viewing the world— that the ribbon is as important as the bomb.

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