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Why Joan Didion's later works are suitable vessels for grief

In her writings on grief, Joan Didion pared down the flamboyance of her initial style to become more contemplative

A file photo of Joan Didion
A file photo of Joan Didion (AP)

In 1973, the anthology The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, was published. The title referred to a then-influential new style of reportage and newswriting, in which the journalist inserted themselves into the story, abandoning objectivity in the favour of vivid imagery, subjective impressions and other novelistic techniques. Featuring essays by Truman Capote, George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson and others, The New Journalism also included ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Run’ by Joan Didion, who passed away last week, aged 87, following complications from Parkinson’s disease.

The essay, part of Didion’s 1968 debut collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is flamboyant, even in-your-face at times. In terms of pure storytelling, it’s a great example of the author’s early style. Its descriptions of Hollywood and California’s 1960s counterculture are brutal (at one point in the book, Didion writes about a child no more than 4-5 years old whose parents have given her LSD) but also clear-eyed and ever-alert to the absurdist possibilities of her chosen subject and setting. Look at this passage, where she mixes sociological critique with a nifty James M. Cain reference and a string of merciless what-if scenarios — as Martin Amis once admitted during an otherwise critical review of her The White Album (1978), Didion had “an almost embarrassingly sharp ear and unblinking eye for the Californian inanity”.

“This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”

The modern tendency is to see Didion’s nonfiction output in three distinct phases: the New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album), the political essays of the 1980s and '90s (Salvador, Democracy) and finally, the ‘grief memoirs’ of the 2000s (The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights).

The cover of Didion's National Book Award winning The Year of Magical Thinking
The cover of Didion's National Book Award winning The Year of Magical Thinking

According to this writer, however, Didion’s grief memoirs are a much more refined and well-rounded expression of her early, New Journalism-adjacent style. The flamboyance is pared down while the signature Didion voice, exemplified in the passage above, is markedly softer and more contemplative, especially given the subject at hand. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), another American writer known for his novelistic reportage, called his technique “the giant floating eyeball method”— in Didion’s case, the giant floating eyeball in the sky was turned squarely upon herself.

Consider The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a Pulitzer finalist and winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. This was a book that Didion wrote about the year following her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne’s death: at the time of his passing, their daughter Quintana Michael was hospitalized with pneumonia. Some of the most telling passages here are about the ‘magical thinking’ of the title, a kind of derangement or insanity that comes about due to grief.

“We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

Look at how ‘cool customers’ is doing the emotional heavy lifting for Didion here. She uses this supremely detached, ironic phase to describe her mourning, and the ways in which her own grieving brain is tricking her. Also, ‘customers’ gives the whole enterprise a mechanical, transactional sheen, priming readers for the sentence’s shock ending (“need his shoes”). This sentence-by-sentence deep-focus is, I would argue, every bit the legacy of Didion’s early New Journalism style. Read her hyper-focused missives on iconic figures like John Wayne (“his thirty-three-year-old spurs, his dusty neckerchief, his blue shirt”) and Joan Baez in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and you’ll see the stylistic resemblance.

While writing Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Didion was inspired by novelists like Ernest Hemingway and Henry James (who she lauded for his “perfect, indirect, complicated sentences” in a 2015 Paris Review interview). With The Year of Magical Thinking, her connection to these old masters is even clearer: for Didion, grief was not merely a life-changing phenomenon, it was another Big Subject that she deconstructed sentence by perfect, complicated, indirect sentence. So many of us tend to think of grief as an intensely personal process that we fail to see it as one of the few things in the world common to all of our lived realities. And because this matter is at once personal and universal, Didion’s pared-down novelistic technique works brilliantly throughout The Year of Magical Thinking.

Ditto with Blue Nights (2011), which Didion wrote following the death of her daughter Quintana in 2005, at age 39. The novelist John Banville, reviewing the book in The New York Times, wrote that Didion, a former “connoisseur of catastrophe”, had changed her style in order to make it a more suitable vessel for her grief. I believe Banville was only half-right. As Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, she needed “more than words to find the meaning” now that her husband had passed. The more-than-words proviso she mentions refers to a truth whose sheer force hit Didion late in life. As Banville put it, “against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.”

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