Author Spotlight: Joan Didion
Posted by Meghan Hayes
Run River (1963, fiction)
Joan was 29 when she published her first novel. It sort of makes you romanticize the scorching heat, and feel like you would be fine without the Internet or you cell phone. It’s a standard Didion romance … people are very unhappy / always drunk. This is also where you start to get a sense of how obsessed she is with the concept of land … especially land as a commodity.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968, Essays)
Arguably her most famous book of essays, the biography The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty (review at the very end of this) credits this book with Didion’s success as an author. It pretty much put her on the map and showcased her knack for making everythingl personal. Obviously what comes to mind when I think about this book is her essay about LSD, Dead Heads and counterculture in San Francisco back in the 60’s. I’ll refrain from saying “this is an amazing book,” at the end of each review, but this is a necessary read if you’re getting into her work. The first piece of writing I ever read of her’s comes from this collection. Alexi Wasser from ImBoyCrazy.com (a blog I used to follow closely) uploaded an exerpt from the essay “On Self Respect” that I saved to my computer. It was because of this that I recognized Didion’s name and decided to pick up a used copy of The Year of Magical Thinking at Bull Moose. IT WAS ONLY $2.50 AND THE SPINE WASN’T EVEN CRACKED … like how most love stories begin.
Play It As It Lays (1970, fiction)
This was the second book I read (after The Year of Magical Thinking). I remember hating the cover, but really getting a sense for her writing style (repetitious, short sentences, and the use of song lyrics or lines from other works of art not her own). I also don’t want to end every review with “this book is very sad,” but it is very sad. Reading this book makes you feel melancholic, but also weirdly cool. Like you could break up with your boyfriend and not even blink. Also, the lead character’s name is pronounced “Mar-eye-a.” Get it straight.
A Book of Common Prayer (1977, fiction)
THIS IS MY FAVOOOOOURITE FICTION BOOK!! Ugh I love it so much I have read it multiple multiple times. Charlotte is one of my all-time favourite characters and I often fantasize about a scenario where I scream “You fuck!” at someone who just pushed my last button. I also love stories (for some weird undiagnosed reason) where a bomb goes off (The Goldfinch, American Pastoral, etc.), and this is a major plot point in the book. Charlotte’s daughter Marin is a “political extremist” who goes too far and then disappears to avoid being arrested. I don’t want to go too far into the plot, but the “love” triangle between Charlotte and her ex-husband (Marin’s father) and her current husband makes for a great book. It is especially interesting after reading the biography on her and Daughtry detailing the relationship Didion had with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her first partner Noel Parmentel. Apparently, Parmentel tried to sue Didion for defamation of character, saying the ex-husband is too similar to himself.
The White Album (1979, essays)
This is my favourite book of essays Didion wrote. The opening essay is easily one of her most famous (i.e. the first line is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”). In it Didion chronicles her nervous breakdown, or as she would say, “[her] natural reaction to the 1960s”. This is an amazing essay, and if you are only ever going to read one thing by Joan Didion this should probably be it. But my favourite essay is "Quiet Days in Malibu." I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read it and even the time of day. It goes back and forth between describing the forest fire that got out of control in Malibu and a horticulturalist who specializes in orchids. They way she finally links the two makes your stomach sink … it’s her signature move.
Salvador (1983, non-fiction)
This is a very short read. It’s only ~100 pages. It’s a first person account of Didion and her husband’s 1982 trip to El Salvador during the civil war. If you know nothing about this, you won’t learn too much about how / why, but you will definitely get a sense of what it was like to live there during that time (i.e. terrifying). A line I always remember, especially since I work in the newsroom industry now, is, “and after I dropped them there it occurred to me that this was the first time in my life that I had been in the presence of obvious 'material' and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread.” This is one of her books that reminds you of her talent as a journalist and her engrossing way of describing her surroundings reportorial-style. This was a far more interesting read than Miami (see below).
Democracy (1987, fiction)
I’ve reread a lot of Joan Didion’s work, but this is the one that somehow always slips by me. It isn’t in my top 5 so that is probably why, but I still find myself thinking about it a lot. Especially whenever I drive by a YMCA (you’ll figure it out). It’s also the main reason I want to go to Hawaii. Didion and her family have spent A LOT of time in Hawaii. In fact one of her most famous lines was, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce” (another gem from The White Album).
Miami (1987, non-fiction)
This is my least favourite, but it’s only because I’m not familiar with the subject matter at all. Miami is a non-fiction account of Cuban exiles and their relationship with the U.S. It was a bit hard to get through and I don’t remember too much about it. The one thing that comes to mind is car explosions, and people being afraid to even get in their cars. I also remember there being a deep hatred for Kennedy. If you know anyone remotely interested in history they would probably enjoy this.
After Henry (1992, essays)
This is a very beautiful eulogy to Didion’s longtime friend and editor Henry Robbins. It’s so eloquent that I didn’t even have to look up his name to make sure I was getting it right… I remember because it was written so beautifully. This book will be difficult for anyone to find. The fact that I own it is a testament to how great my parents are. They found it at a used bookstore in the U.S. and mailed it to me as a surprise when I was living in London, Ont. This book has a lot of incredible essays, and two that I think about all the time. The first is about rape and how we stigmatize victims, as well as race relations in the U.S. This essay follows the case of the “Central Park Jogger” - a well-off woman who was brutally raped and beaten on her evening run in New York City. The other essay discusses the trial of Patty Hearst. This book was also dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis - a longtime dedicated Didion fan. I imagine he has a framed cutout of it. Ellis (author of American Psycho) is someone whose reading list I closely follow as it seems we have pretty similar tastes in books. If you ever read his book Less Than Zero you will see why he loves Didion so much … he really borrows from her stylistically.
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996, fiction)
My second favourite of Didion’s fiction books. I’ve probably reread this book the most out of all of Didion’s work. The relationship between Elena McMahon and Treat Morrison is crushing. This is probably my favourite line from the book “'I read you too’, she said. Of course she did, of course he did. Of course they read each other. Of course they knew each other, understood each other, recognized each other, took one look and got each other, had to be with each other, saw the colour drain out of what they saw when they were not looking at each other. They were the same person. They were equally remote.”. The plot largely revolves around an arms deal - both Didion and Dunne often write characters who are involved in illegal matters. The lead female character is another favourite. She’s despondent, which shouldn’t be something I envy, but Didion somehow makes it seem very cool. There is one scene with an explosive device, a tarmac and a dog that I think about all the time. It’s written in a way that embodies Didion’s writing style. This book also makes me think pairing bacon and a Coke for breakfast is normal. I’ve already ordered it a few times.
Political Fictions (2001, essays)
I know nothing about politics. I won’t write too much about this but it is a relevant read. The lead character in The Last Thing He Wanted quits her job on a campaign trail thus jumpstarting the book’s plot. You can see that following political campaigns as a journalist was a part of who Didion was. It also makes you think about her famous packing list that she used for these away trips, as well as how often she and Dunne would make long-distance calls to one another while travelling for work. An essay that comes to mind is the one that covers the aftermath of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Where I Was From (2003, memoir/non-fiction)
Didion knows her family's history well. She is a California native and has been obsessed with her pioneer ancestors since she was old enough to do school projects on them (side note: lots of this in Daugherty’s biography). Didion has actual diary entries from her ancestors on their travels to California. This could be a slow read for people who aren’t interested in land, but it’s a deeply personal, historical account of something that plays a huge part in Didion’s identity.
Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (2003, essays)
Imagine my horror when I buy my last ever Joan Didion book and it is only 44 PAGES LONG. The title is pretty much all you need to know.
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005, memoir)
God, where do I even begin? I read this book within 24 hours. It also coincides with when I first started dating my boyfriend. I remember reading it on his couch while he was working on his computer. It’s weird because I have so many happy memories when I think of this book, yet the subject matter is incredibly depressing. Michelle Williams told Vanity Fair that the book helped her get through her grief following Heath Ledger’s death. Honestly, that best sums up this book. I would recommend it to anyone dealing with loss … death or otherwise. It’s heartbreaking to read because it’s about the death of Didion’s husband (heart attack) and their daughter (kind of complicated to explain, but essentially from pneumonia). Didion approaches these tragedies they way she approaches everything in her life ... she turns to the literature. If you ever read anything by Didion it should, without a question, be this. I don’t even know what else to say … I love Joan Didion.
Blue Nights (2011, memoir)
Didion will always be remembered for her last two memoirs. When she dies, writers will probably only mention these two works in the articles they draft. Being the fan that I am, I think you NEED to read her fiction and older works. But that being said … there is a reason these two memoirs will be what’s left behind. They are written so beautifully on such sensitive topics that I’ve read them multiple times. Blue Nights mainly focuses on both the adoption and death of Quintana, Didion and Dunne’s daughter. It also deals with the aftermath of the loss Didion feels in The Year of Magical Thinking. This book deals with a lot of memories. And if I ever had to choose one passage from any Didion book it would be this one, "'You have your wonderful memories,’ people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.” If I even think about how she ends this book I cry. For someone who would never be characterized as cheerful, it’s incredibly uplifting and moving.
That sums it up for anything written by Didion. What follows is a review of her biography:
The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty
You have to be obsessed with Didion in order to enjoy reading this. It is super dense and Daugherty doesn’t really write in this biography in the conventional way (he prefers to call it a “literary approach”). There are parts of it that remind me of something you would read in an academic journal. I used to tell people I was only buying the biography to fact check it, and honestly, there were probably only two facts I didn’t know that I took from this 752 paged beast. The first being that Didion was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and that she needed permission to take it out from the library as a child. The second was about the existence of Noel Parmentel. There is a passage in The Year of Magical Thinking that I always wish was extended into a fictitious book, it goes like this, “'Why do you always have to be right, I remembered John saying. It was a complaint, a charge, part of a fight. He never understood that in my own mind I was never right. Once in 1971, when we were moving from Franklin Avenue to Malibu, I found a message stuck behind a picture I was taking down. The message was from someone to whom I had been close before I married John. He had spent a few weeks with us in the house on Franklin Avenue. This was the message: 'You were wrong.' I did not know what I had been wrong about but the possibilities seemed infinite. I burned the message. I never mentioned it to John.” This has got to be Parmentel. It’s even referenced in the book. Any and all of the information on Parmental made it worth the read. I should also mention that I was a little disheartened by the fat that Didion and Dunne’s relationship had its flaws. I have idealized it ever since reading their memories (his being Harp). In a way, this was probably for the best.
Well, here you go. Didion or die ….