Notes on a Voice: Robert Butler considers the cool incisive prose of Joan Didion

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011

She has written five novels, numerous movie scripts, and one play, but Joan Didion’s pre-eminence rests on the eight books of non-fiction—essays, memoirs and reportage—in which her cool, incisive, first-person voice is most evident.

She was born in Sacramento in 1934, when California’s population stood at 6m (it’s now 35m). In “Where I Was From” Didion traces her family to 1776, when her five-greats grandmother, “aged 16, married an 18-year-old veteran of the Revolution”. That sense of a hardier world, and other values, remains. If Didion’s grandfather saw a rattlesnake, he’d stop the car and go into the brush to find it, saying it was “the code of the West”. Her father served in the war, sold insurance “when no one was buying” and played poker to support his family. Her California was never Ronald Reagan’s.

Didion won a Vogue essay contest in 1956, but it wasn’t until 1968 that her first book of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, announced her anxious meticulousness. Her essay on a murder in San Bernardino (“This is a story of love and death in the golden land…”) so impressed Tom Wolfe that he put it in “The New Journalism”. Didion published more collections, including “The White Album” and “Sentimental Journeys”, and several novels, which took her tight elliptical studies of social fracture and bad nerves even further than the journalism.

Throughout a 40-year marriage, Didion also wrote screenplays with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, including “The Panic in Needle Park” (a break-out role for Al Pacino), “A Star Is Born” (Barbra Streisand) and “Up Close and Personal” (Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer). After her husband died in 2003, Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking”, tracking the tides of grief and her own capacity for self-delusion. The book became a play, adapted by Didion and starring Vanessa Redgrave, which was staged in London and on Broadway. In 2005, her daughter Quintana died too—the subject of Didion’s next book, “Blue Nights”.

KEY DECISION Saying “yes” to Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, when he asked her to attend her first political convention in 1988. This move from stories only she might be covering to stories the media were all over compelled her to face the “insistent sentimentalisation” of American life. Her loyalty to what’s in front of her own eyes (“my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular,” she wrote in 1968) shows up the “dissonance” and “contradictions” in many of the “fables” that dominate the news. An outsider, Didion is scornful of mainstream journalism’s “tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line” (“Political Fictions”). Her subject becomes the way America deludes itself, or magical thinking.

STRONG POINTS Her rootedness: the woman who sets the table and changes the sheets is the same one who notices the self-serving abstractions of 1960s hippies or 1990s neocons. Her relaxed use of direct address (“I recall…”, “I am talking about…”). Her lawyerly way of building a case, without announcing it, through the hawk-like use of one-, two- or three-word quotes. Her precision with names, job titles, times, dates and places, which serves to pin down the “disconnects”, “blurs”, “codes” and “lacunae” of the story. Above all, the pitch-perfect cadences of her elaborate 200-word sentences.

GOLDEN RULE No formal interviews. A default position as much as a rule, it highlights Didion’s apartness as a reporter: “I like to sit around and watch people do what they do.” If this was born of shyness, it has become a strength. It forces her to be indirect and unannounced; she hangs around, listens hard, pores over clippings and reads more second-rate political autobiographies than is good for anyone. “Photographers she has worked with”, wrote Tom Wolfe, “say her shyness sometimes makes her subjects so nervous they blurt out extraordinary things…to fill the…vacuum.”

FAVOURITE TRICK Moving between anchoring details and big emotional moments: “According to my kitchen notebook we ate linguine Bolognese and a salad and cheese and a baguette. At that point he would have had 48 hours left to live.” (“The Year of Magical Thinking”, 2006.)

ROLE MODELS Hemingway for his “deceptively simple” style; Henry James for his “indirectness” and V.S. Naipaul for his use of “seemingly insignificant details”. Her favourite novel is Conrad’s “Victory”: “the story is told third-hand”.

TYPICAL SENTENCE “On the August night in 1933 when General Gerardo Machado, then president of Cuba, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him five revolvers, seven bags of gold, and five friends, still in their pajamas.” (“Miami”, 1987.)

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life

Illustration: Kathryn Rathke