Joan Didion’s Knife
January 11, 2022 § Leave a comment
When I got the alert on my phone that Joan Didion had died, I was slicing cheese on a cutting board in our kitchen, which made me think of the footage in the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, where Didion is in her kitchen, also at a cutting board, slicing up a sandwich into strips. She already looks tiny, her small, knuckled hands using a big knife, and it is scary to watch her try to manage this chore with the way she places her fingers near the blade. In a voiceover, she tells us that people have been concerned that she hasn’t been eating.
The problem with trying to find anything to say about a writer so studied, so beloved, so woefully imitated, is that the proper distance to do so feels impossible. Didion herself, ironically, was probably better than anyone at maintaining that distance.
I began the year by rereading The Year of Magical Thinking, which was the first book of hers I had ever read. After the first time I read it—in 2015, the year after my mother died—I worked backwards through the Didion oeuvre, into The White Album, then Slouching Towards Bethlehem, then After Henry, then the novels. It is an experience to read the shellshocked widow in Year—coping with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the hospitalization of her comatose daughter, Quintana Roo, at the same time—then to go back and read the disapproving adult who bought hamburgers for the hippies in Slouching. Didion brought to the sixties an adult detachment and a coddled neurosis. Whatever she aimed to get by following the hippies around, it wasn’t the truth—it was the sum of the affectations they wanted to cultivate. Even though “Slouching” is the essay Didion is known for, it is nothing like her other essays, which are more critiques of how events look—how they are portrayed and impressed upon the public mind.
Much of Year is about a woman so used to controlling narratives going down desperate paths to control the narrative of her grieving, an effort undertaken by living overnight in hospitals and eating from vending machines and researching obscure medical disorders. My father died six years before I read Year for the first time, and all of this was familiar to me as I remembered how my mother sought ways to control her own grief story.
Didion has a way of seeing a pattern and then making everything else that she subsequently sees fit into that pattern. For most writers, this is thought of as reductive and hazardous. Most, I think, are too busy trying to emerge, work from the inside-out, to see any pattern at all. But it becomes clear as you read her that she has already gone through all the linear thinking needed to find that pattern. Her sentence structure encourages this thinking: Didion’s manner, in both her fiction and her essays, is to play with restatements, swapping out a word or phrase or extending an abbreviated thought with context or elucidation. In Year, that practice helps her sort through her own faulty memory events:
The autopsy did not take place until eleven the next morning. I realize now that the autopsy could have taken place only after the man I did not know at New York Hospital made the phone call to me, on the morning of December 31. The man who made the call was not “my social worker,” not “my husband’s doctor,” not, as John and I might have said to each other, our friend from the bridge. “Not our friend from the bridge” was family shorthand, having to do with how his Aunt Harriet Burns described subsequent sightings of recently encountered strangers, for example seeing outside the Friendly’s in West Hartford the same Cadillac Seville that had earlier cut her off on the Bulkeley Bridge. “Our friend from the bridge,” she would say. I was thinking about John saying “not our friend from the bridge” as I listened to the man on the telephone. I recall expressions of sympathy. I recall offers of assistance. He seemed to be avoiding some point.
This style of circling back, repeating a line by tweaking a word or two, fits with her willingness to hammer upon themes. In her second-to-last book, the slim volume South and West, the South represents stagnation:
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.
Running water and the ability to cleanse seems to be a point of where things matter. She takes note of all the swimming pools in all the motels—“in Eutaw there was a white swimming pool and a black swimming pool”—and notes the algae and cigarette butt floating in another.
In Oxford, Mississippi, she submerges:
Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that to me 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.”
She pits the two extremities of the country against each other and finds that one way she finds comfort in the West is that she can “pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes.” It is critical to know which snakes can kill you and which cannot. Maria Wyeth, in Play It As It Lays, shares the same obsession on the very first page:
Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there.
At The Nation, Emma Hager points to another passage:
I recalled a well-known passage from the middle of Where I Was From , where she dispassionately examines the inherited, and slightly brutal, regional conduct: “If my grandfather spotted a rattlesnake while driving, he would stop his car and go into the brush after it. To do less, he advised me more than once, was to endanger whoever entered the brush, and so violate what he called ‘the code of the West.’”
Suburban sprawl has since devoured so much of the rattlers’ rightful habitats, including good portions of the grassy San Joaquin Delta sloughs that the Didions have been traversing since long before the advent of cars. But regardless, wasn’t this network of Joan devotees some newer—probably inevitable—iteration of “the code of the West”? That’s what this social fabric has always felt like to us, at least, and especially those of us who demonstrated, sometime in our early teens, a small and nagging interest in writing.
So many of her books come with so much white on the page, so many single-line paragraphs—it was Didion’s way of creating her own punctuation, of making you look at the part of the sentence you too often skip over. The phrase “it was said” – one of the tools the irresponsible journalist employs to introduce innuendo –turns up with drinking-game frequency in so many Didion books, especially in After Henry. For Didion it functioned as a way to place herself in a story that started before she got there and that she knew would continue after she left. It’s a tool used in her fiction, too, especially in her books about imposter power brokers like The Last Thing He Wanted and A Book of Common Prayer. Every character gets spotted –it was said, overheard, rumored—drinking martinis in an airport lounge. A forced omniscience, an eye of God.
California is droughts, gold, Mormons, movies, and the white line between glamour and its pretense. There is no water and the dry land catches fire and they still decided that was the place they wanted to make movies. The desert was where they wanted to gamble, to show that they could.
She has done the acid you didn’t even know where to buy; she has followed the money to understand why California will never have pure public drinking water. She has sat and writhed and contemplated in all of the hospitals and the waiting rooms, navigated all the freeways. She had read the same papers and did no extra research on Howard Hughes or Manson or Patty Hearst or the Central Park jogger case; she merely drew lines between the dots and made us see pictures everyone else refused to see. And was so quiet about where the real work began, coy about how she did it. Which is why she’ll be imitated woefully by so many lesser writers. So many that it will be embarrassing.