I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.
Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written. The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970. The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.
The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, 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.
This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy. But was it so outlandish? In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South. Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not. So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents. Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater. After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”
Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast. One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.” Here’s why:
There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff. The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.
I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger. I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong. Later, Didion reports:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
My anger resurfaced. What horseshit, I thought. You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.
After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point. The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role. Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing. She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread. As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.” I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion. She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences. She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.
In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem. Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.” The operative words here are cool and empyreal. “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences. But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi. There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.
At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:
The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?
And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style. The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.” Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.
This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.” This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness. Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust? Or Henry James? Or Virginia Woolf? Or Flannery O’Connor? Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity. “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins. Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.” But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”
The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:
“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”
“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”
“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line. One is conscious of trains in the South. It is a true earlier time.” And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”
“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.”
“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”
“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools. Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality. In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.” In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar. ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’” In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.” In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing. I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”
In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony. The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South. Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics. The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow. Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.” Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask. This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”
The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).” That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style. With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.” The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars. Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West. But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.