Thursday 27 September 2012

Joan Didion: Fiction v Non-Fiction

Joan Didion in Hollywood, 1970

I never liked Joan Didion. I have yet to discover whether this is a controversial statement or not. I’m guessing that it is, given the amount of “Top 50”/”Top 100”/”Books to Read Before You Croak” lists her work crops up on.

I read “Play It As It Lays” a couple of years ago and couldn’t get into it. I found it stylistically irritating and – while I enjoyed the flourishes of ingenious language and description that abound throughout the book – I was unable to get beyond this.

Descriptions of characters driving into the “hard white empty core of the world,” for example, are excellent, and showcase Didion’s talents as a true literary artist. But each time the book is given a chance to fly, we are dragged back down into the lazy, languid, mire of Didion’s own narcissism.

You might think narcissism is the wrong word, that I’m being unnecessarily harsh, but I’ve thought about this long and hard and found it to be the right word. Joan Didion’s prose is narcissistic in that the concept of “Joan Didion” – i.e. “the author herself – is always fully evident within it, staring back at the reader with its ironic, beatnik-ian arrogance.

I’ve read substantially about the relationship between Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne – who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie – and have spotted more than a couple of parallels between the real life ‘Didions’ and the characters of “Play It As it Lays”. The problem with this sort of dreary gonzo-literature is that Didion appears to be almost legitimising the actions of a ‘Lost Generation #2’ (or #3,#4 or whatever number we’re up to now) and denying the existence all other responsibility or obligation.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I didn’t like "Play It As It Lays" and I didn’t particularly like Joan Didion as a person.

Earlier this year, I read “The Year of Magical Thinking”. My reasoning for picking up this book was that I was thinking about "Play It As It Lays" one day and was struck with the peculiar thought that Didion’s self-absorbed writing style would probably translate rather well to a memoir.

So I went out on a limb, purchased the book with low expectations, and gave it a go. The thought process that led me to this book must have been a form of magical thinking in itself, as I found it thoroughly compelling from the outset.

For those who are unaware, The Year of Magical Thinking deals with Joan Didion’s own experience of the sudden death of her husband and its immediate aftermath. It is also grimly capoed by the death of the couple’s daughter shortly after the book was completed, an event which would be dealt with in a second book, “Blue Nights”.

Maybe it is the grim and sobering subject matter of the book that finally brings Didion – now an elderly lady – into the realms of sympathy and normality, or maybe it is that – with Didion in this newly reflective frame of mind – the author is able to write more candidly about her own failings and her own issues, rather than retreating into the superficial constructions of her fiction.

In the book, Didion deals with death head-on, often more bluntly than many of her fellow authors. Those whose literary diet began with the stoicism of Hemingway will be fascinated by the way that Didion’s grief is personified to such an extent that it almost becomes an additional character in the book, as well as the way in which she accommodates the insanity this monstrous grief brings.

Unflinching and reflective in its portrayal of Didion’s relationships with both her husband and her daughter Quintana over the years, "The Year of Magical Thinking" is made even more poignant by the reader's prescient knowledge of Quintana’s imminent and untimely death following intensive brain surgery in 2005.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" is literary redemption for Joan Didion, in the most heartbreaking and brutal fashion. 

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