Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future ... South and West is, in one regard, the most revealing of Didion’s books...offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls ... even in its most casual iteration, Didion’s voice, with its sensitivity to the grotesqueries and vanities that dance beneath the skim of daily experience, is unmistakable ... A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the 'dense obsessiveness' of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.
Both pieces are raw and clearly unfinished, but both are fascinating documents spiked with virtuosic turns ... Didion’s portrait of New Orleans is a vivid exercise in modern gothic ... Casting the South as a foil for the West, Didion is seeking out a counter-America unleveled by defense contractors, agribusiness, and corporate media ... It’s not uncommon for writers to publish work from the drawer when they reach Didion’s age — she’s now 82 — and these fragments would be of interest even if Didion’s sojourn in the South didn’t resonate with our moment of political reaction. They cast light backward and forward on her work, illuminating her reportorial process and the themes she would develop in later novels and nonfiction works ... South and West is a marvelous time capsule, and a reminder that sometimes even the great ones let themselves down. Didion wasn’t one to make a show of failure in her prime, but five decades on South and West is an act of generosity.
South and West is an odd and compelling book — rooted utterly in a past now all but lost to us, while also incredibly timely and relevant ... Even underwater, and in its unpolished state, South and West still bears the hallmarks of Didion’s sparkling prose: her use of detail, juxtaposition, and compression ... The diary format plays to Didion’s strength; like The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, as well as older pieces like The White Album, South and West works because it is fragmentary, a constellation of observations in lieu of an advanced thesis. But this style also cannot help but highlight some of Didion’s usual shortcomings. Her penchant for gnomic phrases means that some of them, lacking elaboration, simply fall flat ... It may be unfair to read too much of 2017 into South and West, but given its publication at this moment in time it’s also impossible not to read too much into it. What emerges here, between California and the Real America, are not just two different communities, or political affiliations, but two different articulations of time itself ... South and West is vital, ultimately, for how it demonstrates (even inadvertently) how such a tension plays out.