In Grief, Joan Didion’s Move From Fiction to Memoir
David Ulin on Moving from Journalism to Fiction to Memoir
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Joan Didion made a mistake. Not in publishing South and West: From a Notebook—although more on that in a little bit—but in the pair of books that precede it: The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011). This is not, I know, a common, or even a popular, perspective; we think of Didion now as a memoirist and read her as if that was her intention all along. For Didion, though, the turn to memoir is (relatively) recent, beginning with her 2003 book about California, Where I Was From. Prior to that, she wrote effectively, movingly, about her own experience—“Notes of a Native Daughter,” “Goodbye to All That”—but her focus, in regard to nonfiction anyway, was largely reportage. Is it coincidence that she made the shift to memoir not long after she stopped writing novels? “The last novel I wrote,” she told me shortly before Blue Nights came out, “was The Last Thing He Wanted, and I made notes for a novel after that. I was writing the notes still at the time John died. I’ve never read the notes again.” John, of course, is her husband John Gregory Dunne, whose death of a massive heart attack on December 30, 2003, while sitting at the dinner table in the couple’s Upper East Side apartment, is the inciting incident, if you will, for The Year of Magical Thinking.
I am a Didion acolyte—I may as well admit that at the top. I’ve written elsewhere of the effect Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album had on me when I first came across them as an 18-year-old. Before Didion, I had never considered that nonfiction could be literature; she opened up the essay as a form. Before Didion, I hadn’t fully realized the power of voice, of argument, at least not as a conscious strategy. It’s not that I wasn’t reading voicy writers; my favorites included Vonnegut and Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Jack Kerouac. But if Kerouac in particular intrigued me because of his insistence on reframing his life as epic mythos, Didion was after something else.
Unlike those other writers (well, maybe Vonnegut), she had no faith in narrative; she acknowledged this up front. “I want you to understand exactly what you are getting,” she declares in “In the Islands.”
You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor. … I have trouble making certain connections. I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point. The point itself seems increasingly obscure.
I loved this line—still love this line—because it described my sense of the situation, as well. We are lost, adrift in a world, a culture not of our own making, where, as she so vividly writes about Haight-Ashbury during the summer of 1967, “[t]he center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.”
For Didion, the matter of dislocation was pressing on a different level than it was for me. I was the child of an assimilating family, remaking itself in the image of its aspiration; her ancestors had arrived in 19th-century California by way of the Oregon Trail. This is one piece of the history she reconstructs in Where I Was From, although it was hardly unknown to anyone who’d read her, especially that underrated debut Run, River, which I imagine as a bookend to the later work. Had her career ended with Where I Was From, it might have made a perfect framing: four clean decades, 1963 to 2003, not to mention the progression from novel to memoir, all of it invoking or provoked by California, which twines through her essays and books. Didion was not unaware of this.
“In the California book,” she told me, referring to Where I Was From, “I did a whole breakdown, I went through my first novel, which was kind of exhilarating because I got a chance to go back and go over it and get smarter. And point out what was wrong.” It’s been a long time since I’ve read either of these books, but this is an idea that resonates. To get smarter? To reframe one’s older work through the filter of the new? “Actually,” she said of her California memoir, “I started that book before my mother and father died. I was unable to get very far with it. Once my mother and father died, I picked it up again after 20 years, and I realized that it had been impossible to write while they were alive because I didn’t want to present a version of California that they would not recognize.”
There’s so much to unpack here, it’s hard to know where to begin: that relentless self-dissection, the ruthlessness required to write. I didn’t want to present a version of California that they would not recognize—here we see the push and pull of narrative, as well as of the past. Didion is at her best when she is in the middle territory, rooted in her own history but seeing all the ways that it’s no longer accurate or relevant, all the ways that stories let us down. “During this period,” she writes in “The White Album,” describing the brutal back-end fallout of the 1960s, “…I watched Robert Kennedy’s funeral on a verandah at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, and also the first reports on My Lai. I reread all of George Orwell on the Royal Hawaiian Beach, and I also read, in the papers that came one day late from the mainland, the story of Betty Lansdown Fouquet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blond hair who put her five-year-old daughter out to die on the center divider of Interstate 6 some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit. The child, whose fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence when she was rescued 12 hours later by the California Highway Patrol, reported that she had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brother and sister for ‘a long time.’ Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew.”
Didion presents the telling detail as if it suggests some universal something, although really, it’s an expression of her observing eye. “The city burning,” she insists in “Los Angeles Notebook,” “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.” That “one,” that “we,” that “what struck the imagination…”—all are intended to include, or implicate, us, and yet the perspective, the worldview, belongs to her. It’s what makes The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights problematic, because they appear to take a similar approach when, in fact, the focus has tightened to the self. “My favorite line of yours is ‘writers are always selling someone out,’” I told her during another interview, citing the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she admits that her “only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.” Now that she had turned to memoir, was her presence counter to her own best interests? “Absolutely,” she responded. “I was tearing up the only person I knew.”
What does this have to do with South and West? Everything and nothing, I suppose. On the one hand, the book is a curio, notes or drafts of two unfinished pieces, brought out after more than 40 years. On the other, it’s a point-of-view, a set of angles, a way to consider Didion anew—or again.
“California Notes” is reminiscent of many of her essays: 14 pages, from 1976, inspired by the Patty Hearst trial, which Didion was not exactly covering for Rolling Stone. These pages were first published last year in the New York Review of Books, with a brief preface in which she calls them a precursor to Where I Was From. They’re all there, the familiar touchstones: the formality of cross-country air travel in the 1950s, the idyllic distance of Hawaii, the sense of place and class that marks so much of Didion’s writing, the desire to believe in the narrative, even if that’s not an option any more. “This is not about Patricia Hearst,” she reflects. “This is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill.” And this: “I am trying to place myself in history.” Placing herself in history, trying to place us all in history, is what Didion has been after all along. “At some point between 1945 and 1967,” she observes in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.” In a certain sense, Hearst is one of the children she’s describing—and perhaps Didion is one, as well. In a certain sense, this is both the allure and the challenge of California, this nation-state awash in history and utopian denial.
It’s with “Notes on the South,” however, that South and West offers some surprises—or more accurately, a reminder of who we’re dealing with. The material dates from a trip Didion took with Dunne to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the summer of 1970; she is reporting for Life, although not exactly with a purpose, more the vague idea that this “might be a piece.” Class again: There aren’t many writers who can take a month off to drive around looking for a story… not any longer, at any rate. But this has long been one of Didion’s reference points. “If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis,” she writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, “I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris. If Quintana was suddenly stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London.” For most of us, these are, to borrow a phrase from “Fire Season,” “word[s] from a different narrative altogether,” signifiers of a privilege so rarified it doesn’t recognize itself as privilege but as a way of life. Even so, Didion recognizes that it’s an illusion, that this is not (cannot be) sustaining, that everything we cherish or believe in will be taken in the end. “Yet I had always at some level apprehended,” she admits, “because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them.” This is the whole, the only, idea. “Life changes fast,” she writes. “Life changes in the instant. … You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
“Notes on the South” operates from a similar conditionality, except through a broader lens. In Louisiana, Didion witnesses a death, that of a woman in her car; the event feels “serious but casual … endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life.” As to what that means, she elaborates: “Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad, children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings. … The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.”
One thinks of “Los Angeles Notebook,” with its riff on Southern California’s atmospherics: “To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” In each case, Didion is using outer climate to describe inner weather, her ongoing state of “prickly dread.” The difference is that in New Orleans—indeed, throughout the South—she remains an outsider, whereas in Los Angeles, she rarely is. “Maybe the rural South,” she conjectures, “is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.” It’s not hard to see what she’s doing, but the image is secondhand, not quite authentic; she would never write so generally of a place she understood.
And yet, that’s part of the appeal, Didion as fish out of water, to watch what happens when she isn’t in control. “You want to see who’s sitting around the Greyhound bus station and who’s sitting around in a Packard car, is that right?” an Alabama friend asks after she approaches him about potential sources. It’s as good a description of how a journalist begins to gather material as I have read. At the same time, Didion can’t help but situate herself at the center, not just observer but also participant—the driver of the story, as it were. This Southern trip has been inspired, in part, by memories of the period, during the early 1940s, when her father was stationed in Durham, North Carolina, “and my mother and brother and I took a series of slow and overcrowded trains to meet him there.” Anyone who has read her essay “John Wayne: A Love Song” already knows that tune. Personal and cultural, past and present, interior and exterior, all come together beneath her ruthless gaze. “A senseless disagreement on the causeway, ugly words and then silence,” she laments in the last lines here. “We spent a silent night in an airport motel and took the 9:15 National flight to San Francisco. I never wrote the piece.”
It’s tricky to ascribe intentionality to a collection of notes, of fragments, even when they are as articulated, as written, as these ones are. Who knows what happened, why this piece never developed, why she let it go and then came back to it, what it might have been? The implication is that the disagreement is a turning or an end point, but really, that’s just staging, construction of a narrative. It could have been anything: her reticence, the scattershot nature of her survey, too long in a car or series of hotel rooms: the toll of a month on the road.
In that regard, I read “Notes from the South” as its own sort of precursor—not to Where I Was From but to The Year of Magical Thinking instead. Certainly, they share an equivalent claustrophobia. “There was no hostility toward or even curiosity about me in the laundromat,” Didion writes from Alabama. “[B]y virtue of spending a summer afternoon in this steaming bleak structure I had moved into a realm where all women are sisters in misery.” And yet, isn’t this what she has always written about? Misery motivates The Year of Magical Thinking. “We are imperfect mortal beings,” Didion insists, “aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.” This is the conundrum: our need for narrative, which cannot help but fail us. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. “You’re a professional,” Didion admonishes herself. “Finish the piece. It occurs to me that we allow ourselves to imagine only such messages as we need to survive.” Still, if that’s the case—and I agree it is—then what happens when the piece becomes a burden, when we no longer want, or need, to endure?
Such a question has long been Didion’s preoccupation, from “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” to Salvador. That woman, rereading Orwell on the beach at the Royal Hawaiian or accepting a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior? This is where she’s coming from. The stories to which she is drawn are those of people who have reached, or passed, the breaking point, a group that inevitably has, or will, include every one of us. “It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years,” she confides in “The White Album,” “if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a ‘house blessing,’ which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut. … This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of ‘ironic’ detail the reporters would seize on, the morning after the bodies were found.” The morning after the bodies were found… it could be the title of an essay, an epigraph for all of Didion’s work.
This is the argument—or one of them—that her detractors use against her: that she is not reporting what she sees so much as what she feels. It’s a valid enough point, but also not, since what else is a writer supposed to do? Even the most rigorous reporter works out of his or her own subjectivity, not unlike an essayist. In that sense, exposing her predilections, her personality, is the most (the only) honest approach. “Triangulation,” Didion has called it, as in: There are three perspectives that animate any piece of writing, those of the writer, the subject, and the audience. All the same, when it comes to The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, that point-of-view, that triangulation, becomes increasingly difficult to locate.
Why? Unlike her reported books and pieces—or even Where I Was From—Didion’s two late memoirs are accounts of aftermath, which means they mostly deal with marking time. The tragedy, the one we were both dreading and denying, has taken place: “the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.” Time is circular, or meaningless, and the author, who is also the subject, has loyalties she must protect. This emerges more in regard to her daughter than to her husband, which is why the opening sections of The Year of Magical Thinking are so powerful. Spare, without an ounce of sentimentality, they offer scenes that are entirely self-contained. There is no absorbing or incorporating; grief is a country with its own set of rules. As long as Didion remains in that apartment, leaving Dunne’s voice on the answering machine, refusing to throw out his shoes in case he needs them, it is as if time has ceased. What do I do now? she is asking. How do I continue? That there is no answer is the most terrible beauty: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Were this a piece of reporting, one thing or the other would happen: She would go on or she would not. And Didion, as reporter, would be there track it, to write the dislocation down. In his essay “The Aquarium,” Aleksandar Hemon performs precisely that dual function when he describes the death of his one-year-old daughter Isabel from a rare brain cancer. “And now my memory collapses,” he writes. “…In my hastily suppressed visions, I’d foreseen the moment of my child’s death. But what I’d imagined, despite my best efforts, was a quiet, filmic moment in which Teri and I held Isabel’s hands as she peacefully expired. I could not have begun to imagine the intensity of the pain we felt as the nurses removed all the tubes and wires and everyone cleared out and Teri and I held our dead child—our beautiful, ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and battered by compressions—kissing her cheeks and toes. … [H]ow do you step out of a moment like that? How do you leave your dead child behind and return to the vacant routines of whatever you might call your life?”
In both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Didion faces a similar dilemma, but she cannot write about her daughter, cannot reveal what has to be revealed. “I was having a terrible time with it,” Didion told me about Blue Nights, “because I didn’t want to talk about Quintana for a lot of reasons. I didn’t want to talk about her because I didn’t want to talk about her. And the second reason was I didn’t know if I had the right to talk about her. It was her life, not mine.” In the end, she acknowledged, what kept her working was “the sheer fact that I had contracted to write it. That’s always been what eventually pushes me over the edge.”
Here we see the push and pull of writing for a living: You’re a professional. Finish the piece. And yet, to write, or try to write, so closely is not only writing for a living; it is writing to stay alive. We need to tell, we have to tell; we are compelled to share our secrets even when it isn’t good for us. The key criteria is our willingness to reveal. Not in a prurient or self-indulgent way; hardly anything is worse than a self-indulgent memoir. But if Didion’s writing about her daughter has anything to tell us, it’s that the inverse is also true.
Throughout these books, Quintana is an absence, someone we never know. We glimpse her as a recollection, or a patient: less a person than a question mark. “I certainly can’t say,” Didion told me, “that Quintana was ever satisfied with what life was bringing her or that she was particularly happy. In fact, she was dramatically unhappy much of the time. I often think I didn’t give her credit for that. What I mean is that I didn’t take it seriously enough because I just thought that was the way children were.” Now that she is gone, how does Didion explore this set of circumstances? I’m walking—and I know it—a treacherous line here, critiquing the expression of another human’s grief. It makes me want to back away from this inquiry. As Didion has long understood, however, that’s the whole idea, to press on even (or especially) when we do not wish to, to confront that which we would prefer not to confront. The act of writing is an act of public expression: triangulation once again. And yet, what happens in Blue Nights is the opposite of what transpired with her parents, the way their deaths freed Didion to write Where I Was From. When it comes to her daughter, death frees her from nothing. The memories linger, but there is little to be done with them. “Memories,” she writes in the early pages, “are what you no longer want to remember.” This suggests the distance (an essential survival strategy?) at which she can’t help but operate: memoir as expiation, as a form of shedding, a deflection rather than an opening.
Didion, of course, is by her own accounting “a pretty cool customer”; throughout her books, we rarely see her falter or lose her way. Even so, she is, has always been, better at asking questions than at answering them. That’s the whole point of her project—that there are no satisfactory answers beyond the collapse of narrative, the center that is never holding, the conditionality that defines our public and our private lives. Reality, or our engagement with it, is, as it must be, a matter of impressions, beginning with how we end up anyplace. “I had only some dim and unformed sense,” Didion recalls in South and West, “…that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this. I had only the most ‘ephemeral’ picture in my mind.” That’s a loose template around which to attempt to write a book, even a book that remains unfinished, but it also indicates where Didion is coming from.
“And so,” she writes, “instead of talking about it I flew south one day in the summer of 1970, rented a car, and drove for a month or so around Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, saw no spokesmen, covered no events, did nothing at all but try to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.”