Early 2019. I am in New York, meandering through a graduate program. It is snowing--soft cottony flakes that offer a second of midair magic before joining the boot-scarred boggy grit glazing the sidewalks. They settle on my thrifted jacket and borrowed boots, on the acrylic headband bought off Amazon that looks pretty but does nothing to keep my ears warm. I am cold, colder than I have ever been, the wind slapping against my face, tunnelling into my skin and bones like ravenous earthworms. The world goes dark at 4 pm, without the buffer of dusk, the roads a sudden mosaic of streetlight and shadow.
I return home from class around this time and turn the heating high enough to warm soup on. I cook and eat dinner criminally early, clean my small apartment and then run a hot bath. I take Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem with me, a green-bound, borrowed copy, all fresh glue and yellowing paper, that brings murder, drugs, Joan Baez, communism, self-respect and counterculture straight into my bathroom.
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I had read Didion before, of course, mostly when I went through my New Journalism phase back in 2017 and discovered her as well as Talese, Wolfe and Ephron. (I still love Ephron; I am conflicted about Wolfe and Talese). And I had always been envious somewhat of her prolificity, the ease with which she accepts her identity as a writer. "I have been a writer my whole life," she declares with enviable self-assurance in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a record of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Didion also says that even as a child before she was published, she'd "developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs." She adds: "The way I write is who I am."
Seeing California—a place that, I'll be honest, I'd never really found particularly fascinating till then— through Didion's eyes shifts something in me, makes me fall in love with her writing. This is the their-eye-meets-mine in a crowded room sort of love, the sudden, piercing knowledge that this person, only this person, is right for you at that moment--quick, absolute, unfaltering love. I return to Slouching Towards Bethlehem repeatedly that winter, finding comfort in her terse, slightly distant, highly perceptive style -- "icepick laser beams", as reviewer John Leonard once put it.
I am not still sure why this book appeals to me so much, why I turn to it again and again, especially when I have a pile of unread books on my table, thanks to two literature electives. Maybe it is simply a function of a time or place (when I read Didion a year later, in another country, I cannot help but notice the whiteness of her California). Or perhaps it is the language, measured and terse but oh-so-readable. Or the vividity of the world that Didion writes about, neither varnishing nor pillorying it, drawing a reader both into the epicentre of the action and her clever, clever mind. And yes, it helps that the book often makes me laugh. Though Didion is a serious writer, for the most part, her wry observations often end up being effortlessly funny.
Take, for instance, her description of the San Bernardino Valley. "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 life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers school. " Or her astute comment on Joan Baez, a singer I've always liked, whose extreme, even naïve, idealism appeals strongly to me. "Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person," writes Didion. "Like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense, the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be." Also, this gem, a personal favourite, that I discover in the book's preface where Didion explains her "process," if you can call it that; essentially why she is so good at what she does. "I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests," she says in the foreword, adding that it always does. "Writers are always selling somebody out," she warns.
Joan Didion died on December 23 in New York. As the statement released by publishing house AA Knopf says, it was "due to complications from Parkinson's disease." I had been thinking about her last week—a friend had shared an obituary about her frenemy Eve Babitz, another chronicler of California, on my Facebook page. I remember reading that and wondering what Didion would have thought of the obituary, which had stated that "to Ms Babitz, Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, represented the chilly East Coast literary establishment, which did not quite embrace Ms Babitz."
I suppose I will never know. But this I do--I'm going to miss her.