Joan Didion’s Disaffected Literary Descendants
On the New Generation of Wayward Daughter Protagonists
The following essay originally appeared in Overland 225.
If the “drift” narrative belongs to any generation proper, it is to those who came of age in the 60s—swept along, however briefly, upon waves of political dissidence; losing and finding themselves in the wake of cataclysmic cultural change. Curiously, however, there has been a resurgence of this narrative over the last five years in fiction written by women; and with it, a fresh crop of literary heroines who appear to drift romantically, geographically or socially. Exuding an ambiguous, radical mystique, these young heroines are ultimately on the periphery of any group, often hitching themselves to dubiously charismatic men. While that trajectory may seem anachronistic—retracing the footsteps of women of an earlier generation, who traveled from the center to the margins only to find that the gender dynamics were often the same—its literary reprisal offers a contemporary take on female agency as contingent, provisional and compromised. As the poet Jana Prikryl argues in the Paris Review, a woman is already “a kind of rootless cosmopolitan—almost by virtue of their exclusion or disadvantage, they can acquire an awareness of their society that’s unavailable to those who have power.”
In Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus (2015), California is in the drought-stricken near future and Los Angeles is engulfed by encroaching desert sands. Our protagonist is Luz Dunn, adopted in her infancy as a poster child for the Bureau of Conservation; her development tracked by media releases as a means of illustrating the state’s environmental decline. Now 25 and an ex-model, Luz whiles away her hours sleeping and playing dress-up in a starlet’s abandoned Laurel Canyon mansion as her boyfriend Ray scavenges for their survival. When Ray’s attempt to lead them east to water goes awry, Luz seeks refuge in a commune led by the charismatic Levi, whose promise that he will divine water in the desert is reminiscent of Charles Manson’s prophecies regarding an underground city. While men traverse the dunes in rigged-up buggies, a coterie of women—referred to collectively as “the girls”—reside at the Holiday Rambler, a euphemistically termed “haven from inhibitions and negativity.” Levi, it transpires, wants to use Luz’s Baby Dunn fame for his own ambiguous agenda. Fed drugs and coerced into sex with Levi, Luz is eventually “swept into the current” of his plan.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story “The Weirdos,” first published in the Paris Review, a nameless woman moves in with a man who manages a palm tree lined apartment complex. Convinced he is due imminent fame as an actor, he tells her that she is “the sign he’d been waiting for,” and then heads out for acting auditions while she stays behind and cleans the rooms. Short and sinewy, this superstitious wannabe owes more than a little to Manson, whose failure to break into the music industry precipitated his own downward slide. With each failed audition, he becomes increasingly volatile, buying a shotgun to kill the crows he is convinced have been sent to watch him, and telling Moshfegh’s protagonist she is “a scourge.” At one point, she packs her things, wraps the shotgun in an Afghan blanket, but then fails to leave.
In Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), the unnamed narrator comes to New York in the 70s chasing romance. Hooking up for a night with one artist, who nicknames her Reno, she then embarks on a relationship with another, the gun-toting Sandro Valera. While Reno makes her own art, she is continually relegated to the role of muse: “A young woman is a conduit,” Sandro tells her. “All she has to do is exist.” She is invited to accompany him on a promotional motorcycling tour in Italy by his family company; but when Sandro betrays Reno with his cousin, she is sent reeling into the orbit of Italian radicals. There, she finds herself designated getaway driver for an enigmatic mission with Gianni, a member of the Red Brigades.
These women are chameleons by necessity, observing men’s follies but never explicitly contradicting them.
All of these authors are American women, and the drift they depict has specifically American resonances—one thinks of Linda Kasabian, 20-year-old getaway driver for the Manson murders; or America’s other infamously radicalized daughter, Patty Hearst, who “crossed over” after being held hostage for 58 days by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). While Gold Fame Citrus leans heavily on the Manson mythology, Luz’s trajectory is also reminiscent of Hearst’s; her Baby Dunn fame exploited by both establishment and radical interests. Likewise, the paranoid atmosphere of “The Weirdos” recalls Hearst hiding out with other SLA members in a motel. Uneasy syntheses of tough and naïve, exhibiting an almost militant passivity, these heroines have also inherited the traumatic status of Hearst’s and Kasabian’s “relationship” with their captors: a romance known as Stockholm Syndrome. “There were people I could have called, of course,” Moshfegh’s narrator deadpans. “It wasn’t like I was in prison.” At the more civilized end of the scale, there’s Reno wanting to redeem her submission to Sandro through philosophy, declaring, “If there was no imperative, it was not love.” If this kind of assertion seems mannered, it is the currency required for women to make it in this art-world milieu: when Reno tells Sandro on their first date that her requirement for a relationship is “sincerity,” he sighs wearily. Reno’s sentimental education involves learning how to dissimulate and absorb the jolts in a world where getting shot in the crotch with blanks counts as foreplay; where the cool girls punch themselves in the face for the benefit of the camera, as though art were an ironizing charm that might magic true violence away.
“Gender” is a performance, these ambivalent heroines continually remind us, quotation marks signaling the improvised contingency of the role. In Gold Fame Citrus, Luz plays the damsel role to Ray’s protector. Later, Levi gives her a primer on neo-fauna, which includes a hummingbird whose “albinism is an evolutionary advantage.” These women are chameleons by necessity, observing men’s follies but never explicitly contradicting them. Kushner, for instance, is fond of quoting American poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum’s description of Reno as an “existential ingénue.” It is no coincidence that the latter character is named after the Nevada hometown she shares with Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970).
Writing up her own notes from the underground in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Didion had little patience for those Haight-Ashbury women who signed up for the revolution only to find themselves doing the men’s grunt work. But she reserved a special place for Kasabian and Hearst, and her nonfiction dispatches on them—respectively, the titular essay in The White Album (1979) and “Girl of the Golden West,” collected in After Henry (1992)—made their stories canonical for a subsequent generation of literary women. What distinguished these two women for Didion was that they came back from the fringes of cultural dissidence to testify: Kasabian was the key witness for the prosecution in the Manson-ordered Tate-LaBianca murders; Hearst, on trial in 1976, reported back on the SLA’s incompetence. These women’s “sentimental education,” as Didion called it, ultimately affirmed her own essentially conservative politics: in “Girl of the Golden West,” she cast the affluent Hearst as a fellow daughter of the West, merely caught up in the winds of generational change. But her sympathies perhaps emerged from an even more personal stake. A woman of fierce intellectual independence, Didion was also socially anxious—her husband John Dunne commonly sat in on her interviews—yet, she unflinchingly offered her frailties up to the reader in the dispassionate form of psychiatric reports. As her biographer Tracy Daugherty notes in The Last Love Song (2015), when Didion described Hearst’s demeanour on trial—her “peculiar combination of passivity and pragmatic restlessness”—she knew the traits she was describing were also her own. Who was Hearst, then, Daugherty asks, but “Joan Didion with a carbine?”
It was not the first time Didion had executed such a romantic sleight of hand. Visiting Linda Kasabian in protective custody in 1970, she wrote in “The White Album” that she would emerge after each interview “like Persephone from the underworld.” Given that Kasabian, the getaway driver for the Manson murders, had escaped the cult and was being offered immunity in exchange for her testimony, this was hardly a casual reference. Abducted by Hades, Persephone’s eventual release is similarly conditional; because she has partaken of some underworld fare, she has to spend part of each year there. These women offered Didion a vicarious contact with radicalism; a departure, ultimately, not from a previous generation’s conservative politics, but instead from the ideals of a burgeoning feminist movement, which she diagnosed as being mired in naïve fantasies of self-realization and “brave new lives.” In 1964, in the midst of her first nervous breakdown, Didion had married and moved with her husband to Los Angeles. It was with some relish that she noted that Kasabian returned “in search of the pastoral to New Hampshire,” where she lived with her mother. As for Hearst, she married her court-appointed bodyguard.
It is a cliché of postmodernism that, as the past is recycled, cultural trends are chewed up and spat out emptied of their original significance. Yet, coming down via Didion, the wayward daughter trope was already largely deradicalized. What has been inherited instead is an ambivalence to any hard and fast feminism—or, at least, a sense that an empowered heroine is not up to the task of taking the true temperature. Kushner has said that she considers “passivity to be a kind of radical bravery.” This is the kind of counterintuitive stance that brings to mind Didion on assignment: “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”
Is it too fanciful to imagine these self-effacing heroines as fiction’s New Journalists? Prosecuting by implication, letting others do the talking; always, in the end, “selling somebody out.” If these heroines revolt at all, they do it with stylish understatement. Didion, for her part, never allowed her brand to be sullied with overt ideology; she mocked feminism’s invention of women as a class, caricaturing the movement as an aesthetic of privation, “thin raincoats on bitter nights.” For all their flirtations with the radical, it is as hard to imagine her fictional descendants, these chic outliers, being herded into a groundswell uprising as it is to imagine them being enamored with an entrepreneurial sisterhood.
While Didion’s solitary 70s disaffection has left its indelible mark on the American literary scene, its Australian counterpart is perhaps Helen Garner’s inner-city grunge. Published in 1977, Monkey Grip is frank about the compromised realities of a group of women living in a loose-knit counter-cultural community of share-houses, engaged in the task of “reconstructing” themselves. Garner focalizes their plight through Nora, a young mother who writes for a feminist magazine—that is, when she is not mooning over the charismatic, drug-addicted Javo, who seems to drift into her life only when he needs a meal and a bed. The irony, of course, is that Nora is herself deep in the throes of a love addiction that burns her up with jealousy and leaves her prone to periods of stagnated longing. Such paradoxes are not incommensurable with Garner’s feminism but key to it, as she depicts a woman trying, failing and trying again to work through these challenges in attempted sorority with other women.
When contemporary Australian novelists Mireille Juchau and Peggy Frew depict women alienated from second-wave feminism, they offer substantive material reasons. In their respective novels The World Without Us (2015) and Hope Farm (2015), these writers offer portraits of women of limited education and wealth who seek shelter in utopian communes, only to experience pregnancy as a form of social control that leaves them dependent upon—and damaged by—the whims of volatile men. The educated, more affluent outlier has had less purchase on our literary imagination; perhaps because the typical Australian voyage-out was overseas, betraying a cultural cringe. Marion May Campbell, taking the inescapably glamorous Baader-Meinhof gang as her topic in her novel konkretion (2013), nods to such intellectual provincialism: her academic protagonist, Monique Piquet, is a writer of literary fiction whose work is regarded by colleagues as “aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs.” An ex-communist who realizes her former enthusiasms may have led a radicalized student of hers to be seduced by revolutionary chic, Monique makes the sober reassessment that Ulrike Meinhof, too, was simply trying to outrun her bourgeois origins.
The cosmopolitan, countercultural pull is less hedged in young Australian writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s The Love of a Bad Man (2016), a collection of stories based on (primarily American) women who fell under the influence of infamously charismatic men like Jim Jones and Manson (The Girls (2016), by Emma Cline, mines similar territory). Just as Didion admired Hearst’s pragmatism, Woollett notes these women’s “impressive instinct for self-preservation.” Though the title of Woollett’s upcoming novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, suggests a writer with an eye on an Atlantic trend, might the untimely resurgence of these narratives betray something more than the cyclical whims of fashion? A sense that, for contemporary women, power—and the seizing of it—is still not straightforward?
Today the broad trend is towards gentrification; an entrepreneurial momentum which dovetails a little too neatly with a particular “have-it-all” brand of feminism.
When Newsweek ran its headline article “The Teen-Agers: A Newsweek Survey of What They’re Really Like” in March 1966, the cover featured a blonde, blue-eyed Californian girl hitting the road on the back of a male companion’s motorcycle, turning to flash a carefree smile into the lens. Asked for the article’s 50th anniversary how he would envisage a contemporary update, contributor Richard Thomas imagined “a teen entrepreneur who has already launched her business but still wants to have it all,” and suggested to “put her not on motorbike, but in a Google auto-driving car, working her laptop or iPhone 10 on the way to meet her boyfriend.”
If once the social current flowed downwards—drugs and dissolution; middle-class sons and daughters slumming it at counter-cultural clubs and parties—today the broad trend is towards gentrification; an entrepreneurial momentum which dovetails a little too neatly with a particular “have-it-all” brand of feminism. The seams of this fantasy are well and truly unravelling in Lauren Groff’s New Yorker story “Above and Below” (2011), in which an unnamed young woman’s struggle to reconcile inherited notions of independent womanhood with contemporary economic realities sits against the backdrop of her own mother marrying “in exhaustion.” Evicted after her boyfriend leaves her and her funding is not renewed—her teacher’s assistant stipend too meagre to cover the rent—she hits the road, traveling with a crate of books. In case we are unsure what she is reading, she sings out “Goodbye to all that!”—the title of Didion’s essay on the disenchantment she felt at 28, waking belatedly to the realities of adulthood and realizing that “not all of the promises would be kept.” Stealing into a gym to make free use of the showers, Groff’s protagonist makes a lazy intergenerational indictment of the diamond-banded middle-aged women, their bellies and thighs “larded by their easy lives.” Her real gripe, it seems, is with how her feminist inheritance—the ideal of economic independence—grates against continuing structural barriers to it (a tension expressed more petulantly in “The Weirdos,” where Moshfegh’s protagonist deadpans: “I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood”). If Didion’s response to her coming of age was sobering— getting married and leaving New York—Groff’s narrator instead channels the sunlit ennui of Play It as It Lay’s B-grade starlet Maria Wyeth, aimlessly coasting the roads drinking Coke: “the scar on her hand turned a lovely silver in the sun and she sometimes stroked it absently, signifier in lieu of signified, the scratch for the lost life.” Yet, where Maria’s provisional intimacies are with playboys who demand “Wake me up with your tongue,” her academic descendant goes home with a boy who kisses “like a boy prone to anxiety attacks” and hungrily raids his refrigerator. Sleeping in library closets and homeless camps, her downward drift ends in a commune-style squat on the edge of a prairie, where she earns a place by cleaning the kitchen until it shines.
Groff has revealed that she was writing in the anxieties of late pregnancy, when the economy and “humanity’s baseline social contract” began to seem precarious to her; that she was driven by her feeling that the protagonist “could easily have been me.” While the radicalized daughter narrative always carried the taint of privilege, there’s something a little queasily hermetic about a story in which a Didion-reading MFA grad finds herself standing in the long food line outside a church. Though it feels ungracious to note that all of these writers possess Masters of Fine Arts, it does suggest that they know a little of what it is to emerge from this prolonged adolescence and wonder about job security. The rise of writing programs has offered some possibility of a teaching life, but it is a career trajectory that—in the wake of the broader debate over the value of MFAs and fourth-wave feminism’s characteristic calling-out of institutionalized privilege—has become increasingly undermined. In a more tangible sense, these writers find themselves out of step with a feminism honed on the literal-minded concisions of online activism: at the 2016 Perth Writer’s Festival, Groff was unable to suppress her exasperation when her young female interviewer asked if her novel Fates and Furies (2015) was “pro- or anti-marriage.” It is unsurprising then that, as this fresh crop of fictional heroines drift offline and away from accountability, they nod towards Didion; who, in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement,” despaired over narrowly didactic readings of literature, instead insisting upon fiction’s “certain irreducible ambiguities.” And yet, throughout these narratives there are flickers of self-consciousness. Kushner has Reno working as a China Girl, providing an “index of whiteness” for skin-tone “correction” in film labs. Watkins’ effort to give her protagonist Latina heritage rings hollow; she is more clear-sighted when she depicts Luz slumming it in a hand-me-down Hermès scarf and espadrilles, a “wannabe orphan” with a vintage car. In Laura van den Berg’s short story “Lessons,” from her collection Isle of Youth (2013), the radicalized daughter trope collapses into knowing pastiche: a gang of runaway cousins drive around in an Impala robbing banks in gorilla masks.
Where a drifting man is an anti-hero, an existentialist, a drifting woman is a victim, not imagined to be brimming with the same range of ambivalence.
The Hearst and Kasabian mythologies collide in this latter story, one of dumpster-diving girls on the run from the property where they grew up, home-schooled in guns; their father preaching of a coming religious Armageddon, their two mothers “long-faced women scrubbed free of dissent and desire.” Van den Berg knows she is writing a fantasy, so she displaces it onto her characters, having one of them, Cora, express envy when another gang’s bank-robbing antics make the news; and describing her, improbably, as “green-eyed and lean with cropped auburn hair, like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.” As the fetishization of zeitgeist signifiers continues apace, one begins to wonder: are these writers merely conjuring an appealing mise-en-scene, one that might turn their heroines’ banal, contemporary disaffection noir? In a time of radical networks gone global, and young women of extreme cultural alienation seeking community through allegiance to groups such as Islamic State, do narratives like these offer a vicarious, local experience of radicalism-lite? It would be misguided, however, to read the trope as being too mimetic when it is employed in a process of intergenerational recalibration, foregrounding the contradictions of the contemporary scene: here, a winking sense of its anachronism, of how far we’ve come; there, an uncanny resonance, the realization that we have not come as far as we think. Roman Polanski’s aforementioned iconic 1968 film, for instance—about a demure woman who, after giving birth, realizes that her husband is part of a religious cult and that she was impregnated by the Devil—traded on its timely mystification of sexual violence, encoding a pat moral warning. Van den Berg’s contemporary allusion to it reminds us that the idea of a young, unaccounted-for female remains volatile. These heroines are forever receiving warnings: as a police officer cautions Groff’s unemployed drifter, “hate to see you get hurt.” Where a drifting man is an anti-hero, an existentialist, a drifting woman is a victim, not imagined to be brimming with the same range of ambivalence; of unruly, contradictory desires that go unpoliced in men.
Reno is crucially alone when she watches canonical seventies porn flick Behind the Green Door (1972) and imputes a “shared feeling” into the sex between a man and a woman. More than just a nostalgic turn-away from the one-click ubiquity of contemporary degradations, Kushner’s reference seems to also be a means of mourning some of the nuances lost in the gentrification of sexual politics. Evoking the feral, libidinal pull of a pre-gentrification New York where unfixed cats roam squats, she replaces the studied enfeeblement and novice fumbling we find in the contemporaneous fictions of Ben Lerner and Gary Shteyngart with a man who, on his first date, reaches over and gives a girl a hand-job (leaving Reno, to admire, without irony, his “wolf eyes and confidence and skill, the feel and smell of his chivalrous coat”). At times, it is as though these works have ingested Didion’s complaint that, in the wake of second-wave feminism, “the derogation of assertiveness as ‘machismo’ has achieved such currency that one imagines several million women too delicate to deal at any level with an overtly heterosexual man.” Consider Luz, “drawn to [Levi] with such simple urgent magnetism that it was impossible to attribute her feelings to trauma, circumstance, or the context of emotional catatonia into which he entered”; or Moshfegh’s self-deprecating narrator disregarding her reservations, “impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans.”
Of course, what in one glance looks like women reserving the right to make bad decisions is in the next a wry commentary on the language of self-determination. When you reprise a vintage reel and project it over the dispiriting accommodations of the present, the action is bound to be ambivalently backlit. But then, these atavistic heroines are enacting a drift away from the internet-mediated demands of personal-political accountability; from the pressure to take a neatly hashtaggable stance. It is a recoil that is by no means unrelatable. Still, if these narratives remind us of anything, it’s that the romance of keeping cool—of languidly navigating the contradictions in a world of men—has long since worn thin.