Photo courtesy of Tradlands on Flickr.com
The acclaimed American author Joan Didion died on Dec. 23, 2021. In her works “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” Didion chronicles counterculture in the 1960s and the disaffected outlook of a generation. In her later works, she explores the nuances of relationships and loss as a journalist⎯ always looking in. Her sparing and sardonic prose examines America’s deepest fractures (as well as our own) with nonfiction that is every bit as compelling and human as the best contemporary novels of her time and ours.
In “The White Album” she talks about how we look for narratives in the absurd and chaos of life– to construct for ourselves a line of reasoning that makes sense, specifically, about how the 60s was such a mosaic of isolated (or seemingly so) cultural movements, historical events and influential people.
“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices,” Didion wrote in the title essay of “The White Album.” “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
In her writing, readers get the sense that they’re kept at a distance. This fuels the criticism that her writing is pretentious. However, she’s actually quite raw and open in her prose. At one point, for example, she included her own psychiatric notes in an essay, showing the reader herself at her most vulnerable. Didion keeps readers at a distance, then, because it is the same distance in which she keeps herself from her own self.
In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she depicts this alienation from the past and current self, revealing how she compartmentalizes experience, which is probably why the idea of a narrative-imposed existence is so problematic for her.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” she stated in her essay from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” “Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
Didion had an acute understanding of how people perceived her. She often controlled the idea of her through her clothing (This is unsurprising because she started her career at a New York City-based fashion magazine.). The essentials of her ensemble were consolidated in her famous packing list. The clothing portion consisted of two skirts, two jerseys or two leotards, one pullover sweater and two pairs of shoes. (It should be noted that she was always smoking cigarettes and wearing oversized black sunglasses.) Didion’s ensemble was intentionally ambiguous, so she “could pass on either side of the culture,” she said. She could fit in with the Berkeley protesters or fly under the radar interviewing members of the Manson Family cult.
“It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative,” she said about the list in “The White Album.”
Didion’s nonfiction became more personal/autobiographical (even though her fiction always had been) as she got older. This came to a head in 2005 when she published her most popular book “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a book that follows Didion the year after her husband died. It is a raw account of loss and how it alters our reality for a time. For example, at one point in the memoir, she describes how she couldn’t get rid of his shoes because he may need them, demonstrating how mourning changes what we perceive as rational.
“I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death,” she explained. “What ended was the possibility of a response.”
Didion died the month of her birthday and five days before the date of her husband’s death, which had occurred years earlier. With Didion’s death came the loss of one of American literature’s greatest voices, but her words did not leave with her.
She once wrote in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”