Book Notes: Pre-Posthumous Joan Didion

I’m never quite sure whether to regret that Joan Didion stopped producing new work before the rise of Donald Trump. It would be easy to say that in times like these the need for her incisive insight is greater than ever, but I don’t know that that’s true. When things get terrible, it’s obvious that they’re terrible; when an intellectual culture degrades, it needs no Didion come from the pages of the NYRB to tell us this. “Fixed Opinions,” her essay on the determinedly infantile political discourse of the post-9/11 United States, is an effective piece of writing, but it doesn’t read with the urgency of something only Didion could say.

Regrettable or not, Didion’s retirement seems to be, as she might put it, the new fact on the ground. After Blue Nights in 2011, which felt like a valediction (and, dare I suggest it, seemed a work of less supreme control than the rest of Didion’s mature output), there have been 2017’s South and West: From a Notebook, trunk material drawn mostly from a June 1970 road trip through the southern United States for a piece that didn’t ultimately come together, and now Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a haphazard assemblage of twelve previously-published but uncollected pieces dated between 1968 and 2000, supplemented (a less charitable person might say “padded out”) by a Hilton Als introduction that is appreciative, basically insightful but not especially dazzling, and does little to clarify why these twelve pieces in particular appear between this set of covers.

The first six, all from 1968, appeared in Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne’s Saturday Evening Post column “Points West.” Didion is not at her best in the short form of a magazine column, and 1968 was before the deeper sense of disorder chronicled in “The White Album” had fully permeated her style and leavened the wittily chilly but superficial conservative skepticism of her early style, but these are fine work nonetheless, and have much in common with the pieces collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I particularly enjoyed “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” in which Didion turns on her own extreme reaction to being rejected by Stanford the same vicious irony she aims everywhere else:

I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried. For a while I sat on the floor of my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder [Stanford’s Director of Admissions] hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

The rest of the book consists of three introductions (to a collection of Mapplethorpe photos, a memoir by Tony Richardson, and a keepsake edition of three short stories by Didion herself), a lecture titled “Why I Write,” and two essays from The New Yorker. The introductions are unexceptionable, though even with a writer as gifted as Didion one is reminded of Stephen King’s observation that “you have never seen a book entitled One Hundred Great Introductions of Western Civilization or Best-Loved Forewords of the American People.” Didion’s comments on her own writing are rewarding for devotees as insight into her development and for the strange intoxication of her sharp-edged prose, but one can certainly sense why none of this material has been collected before.

The essays from The New Yorker are sharper, more substantial work. “,” the only piece in this volume I’d previously read, is the closest thing in it to Didion’s mature journalism, a consideration of the Martha Stewart phenomenon written before the insider trading scandal. The other New Yorker essay is “Last Words,” a consideration of the posthumous publications of Ernest Hemingway and the larger problem of what to do with the material a great writer leaves behind after death. It’s a passionate essay, and yet one can’t help but feel, to build on a point that Als makes in his introduction, that Didion’s own writerly identity, and her similarities with Hemingway, are leading her toward a position that would leave the larger culture poorer for the theoretical benefit of those who are forever beyond actual benefit.

The irony of reading “Last Words” in its present context is that, while Didion is alive and (presumably) approved which pieces appeared in this collection and which did not, Let Me Tell You What I Mean has a similar air of the posthumous rag-bag, and its inclusions and exclusions are baffling. Gathering the Saturday Evening Post columns, which would otherwise be inaccessible outside of well-stocked libraries, is noble enough, but why none of the uncollected essays from The New York Review of Books? There’s only so much room in the collection, which is formatted, like South and West, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking, as a tiny hardcover with wide margins, but surely an audience for whom these four late publications are Didion deserves a better ratio of substance to style? Anyone who admires Didion will buy this book and be glad to have done so, but those who know her ouevre well enough to know what it omits may be frustrated by those omissions.


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