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. 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.
“Joan Didion’s novels are a carefully designed frieze of the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world. To design a structure for the fadings and erasures of experience is an aesthetic challenge she tries to meet in a quite striking manner; the placement of sentences on the page, abrupt closures rather like hanging up the phone without notice, and an ear for the rhythms and tags of current speech that is altogether remarkable. Perhaps it is prudent that the central characters, women, are not seeking clarity since the world described herein, the America of the last thirty years or so, is blurred by a creeping inexactitude about many things, among them bureaucratic and official language, the jargon of the press, the incoherence of politics, the disastrous surprises in the mother, father, child tableau.
The method of narration, always conscious and sometimes discussed in an aside, will express a peculiar restlessness and unease in order to accommodate the extreme fluidity of the fictional landscape. You will read that something did or did not happen; something was or was not thought; this indicates the ambiguity of the flow, but there is also in ‘did or did not’ the author’s strong sense of a willful obfuscation in contemporary life, a purposeful blackout of what was promised or not promised—a blackout in the interest of personal comfort, and also in the interest of greed, deals, political disguises of intention.
Joan Didion’s novels are not consoling, nor are they notably attuned to the reader’s expectations, even though they are fast-paced, witty, inventive, and interesting in plot. Still they twist and turn, shift focus and point of view, deviations that are perhaps the price or the reward that comes from an obsessive attraction to the disjunctive and paradoxical in American national policy and to the somnolent, careless decisions made in private life.
“Her nerves are bad tonight in the wasteland of Haight-Ashbury; Joan Didion has migraines, generalized and particular afflictions that bring on tears in ‘elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries.’ The revelation of incapacity, doubt, irresolution, and inattention is brought into question by the extraordinary energy and perseverance found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and the later collection, After Henry. If she has ‘nerves,’ she also has ‘nerve’ in the sense of boldness and fortitude. She will do the lowest work of a reporter; make the call, try again when the promised call-back is not forthcoming.
“Play It As It Lays (1970) is the first of the digressive, elusive novels, typical in style and organization of the challenging signature of a Joan Didion work. Shadowy motivation, disruptive or absent context in a paragraph, or pages here and there, are not properly to be read as indecision or compositional falterings. They display instead a sort of muscular assurance and confidence, or so one is led to believe in the face of a dominant, idiosyncratic style that if nothing else scorns the vexation of indolent or even some sophisticated readers who prefer matters and manner otherwise expressed. But, as she says, we go with what we have. The author is in control of the invention and if the machine is a little like an electric automobile or one running on pressed grapes instead of gasoline in a field of Chevrolets, the autonomy—it does run—puts the critic in an uneasy situation.
“The women in the novels suffer losses, serious blows from fate that enshroud them like the black dress European peasant women wear lifelong for bereavement; but they are not wearing a black dress except for stylish definition, like the black dress of Anna Karenina at her first appearance at the ball. Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays has a damaged daughter off somewhere in a hospital; she loves the girl obsessively, but there is no reciprocation from the screaming, indifferent child. Maria has had a cruel abortion. At the end of the book a lover or sometime lover dies in her bed from an overdose of Valium, saying ‘because we’ve been out there where nothing is.’
“In any case, every page of the books is hers in its peculiarities and particulars; all is handmade, or should we say, handcut, as by the knife or a lathe. Some unfriendly reviewers, knowing she has written screenplays, will call the frame or the action cinematic. But the fictions, as she has composed them, are the opposite of the communal cathedrals, or little brown churches in the vale, built by so many willing slaves in Hollywood. The first cry of exasperation from the producers, script doctors, watchful number crunchers with memories of hits and flops would be: What’s going on here? What’s it about?
“The Last Thing He Wanted is a creation of high seriousness, a thriller composed with all the resources of a unique gift for imaginative literature, American literature. There remains in Didion’s far-flung landscapes a mind still rooted in the American West from which she comes. When she makes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem a visit to the venerable piles in Newport, Rhode Island, she remembers the men who built the railroad, dug the Comstock Lode for gold and silver in Virginia City, Nevada, and made a fortune in copper.
More than anyone else in the society, these men had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work. And what they did then was to build a place which…led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living. In that way the lesson of Bellevue Avenue is more seriously radical than the idea of Brook Farm…. Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadow of the migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?
She is saying that Bellevue Avenue in Newport is not what the West was won for.”