april: notes on joan didion

The next installment in my little Year of Excellent Essayists project.

reading didion in los angeles

reading didion in los angeles

random notes:

I sure loved reading Joan Didion.

I read most of The White Album when we were in Los Angeles. It was a treat to read Didion’s take on The Getty before we went there; to read about the Santa Monica Freeway as we drove on it; to read about Hollywood and then to traipse around on streets she’d mentioned. 

When we got home, I read The Year of Magical Thinking. Which, like my selection last month, is not technically a book of essays. But Didion’s style in this memoir reads quite like her essays (although she has said it doesn’t) and I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published. The book is Didion’s chronicle of the year after her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, died; the same year in which her only daughter was in intensive care for several months. (And later also died.) Yes, it’s heavy stuff, not the type of book I tend to read by choice.

But. It’s not a depressing book–it’s a fascinating book. Didion lets you into her mind and you see how grief affects her thinking. It’s not a melodramatic, emotional sort of book, with scenes of sobbing and falling apart; rather it’s a book full of details. And questions. She conveys her loss with details from her life with her husband and daughter: the orchards blooming on 101 on her wedding day (where there no longer are orchards); an old man saying that her daughter, Quintana, at three was “the picture of Ginger Rogers.” Didion is at heart a journalist, and every page of the book is filled with journalistic details. Many appear more than once in the book, hauntingly, evidence of how her grief-stricken mind is functioning.

I feel an affinity with Didion’s writing. She’s a researcher; I’m a researcher. My own husband has said the line, “stop researching and make a decision,” so many times that we ought to paint it on the kitchen wall, above my laptop. Research seems to be Didion’s knee-jerk response to situations: she researches grief and death at great depth; she buys medical books at the UCLA bookstore when her daughter is hospitalized. I’m sure if I were in her place–God forbid–I’d do the same. She also seems to use her love of detail to stand in for emotion at times, which is a tendency of mine as well. That tendency isn’t always effective in novice hands like mine, but Didion is a master. I’ve learned so much from reading her.

a few lines to love:

It’s funny: for the other essayists I’ve read, I’ve included lines from their works which I’ve loved. But Didion isn’t a single-line writer. I’m sure if I looked, I could find lines of hers that I admire, but Didion’s power, I think, comes in the rhythm of her paragraphs, her use of repeated words and lines. In the first pages of Magical Thinking, she writes, “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs…”

Yep. The beauty of her writing lies in those rhythms. So in that vein, I’m going to quote just a few longer passages from what I read.

From her essay, “The White Album”:

“Someone once brought Janis Joplin to a party at the house on Franklin Avenue: she had just done a concert and she wanted brandy-and-Benedictine in a water tumbler. Music people never wanted ordinary drinks. They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat. Spending time with music people was confusing, and required a more fluid and ultimately a more passive approach than I ever acquired. In the first place time was never of the essence: we would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty, or we could order in later. We would go down to U.S.C. to see the Living Theater if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette or an arrangement to meet Ultra Violet at the Montecito. In any case David Hockney was coming by. In any case Ultra Violet was not at the Montecito. In any case we would go down to U.S.C. and see the Living Theater tonight or we would see the Living Theater another night in New York, or Prague. First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more, because music people did not travel in groups of “one” or “two.” John and Michelle Phillips, on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.”

See what I mean about detail? About repeated phrases and rhythms? She’s so good.

And from Magical Thinking, a section a bit more difficult to follow out of context. Didion is responding to a Dr. Volkan, a professor of psychiatry who developed a treatment for “established pathological mourners”. The quoted phrases come directly from Volkan’s report; the personal stories are drawn from remembrances relayed at various times earlier in the book:

But from where exactly did Dr.Volkan and his team in Charlottesville derive their special ability to “explain and interpret the relationship that had existed between the patient and the one who died”? Were you watching Tenko with me and “the lost one” in Brentwood park, did you go with us to Morton’s? Were you with me and “the one who died” at Punchbowl in Honolulu four months before it happened? Did you gather up plumeria blossoms with us and scatter them on the graves of the unknown dead from Pearl Harbor? Did you catch cold with us in the rain at the Jardin du Ranelagh in Paris a month before it happened? Did you skip the Monets with us and go to lunch at Conti? Were you with us when we left Conti and bought the thermometer, were you sitting on our bed at the Bristol when neither of us could figure how to convert the thermometer’s centigrade reading into Fahrenheit?

Were you there?


You might have been useful with the thermometer but you were not there.

I don’t need to “review the circumstances of the death.” I was there.

I catch myself, I stop.

I realize that I am directing irrational anger toward the entirely unknown Dr.Volkan in Charlottesville.”

All those memories of Didion’s slowly started working their way at my heart as I read the book; I felt her loss more deeply than if she wrote more directly about that loss. Then again, how much more direct could she be than letting us in on her thinking? It’s interesting, what she does in this book. There’s a sort of removed analysis of grief, but I don’t think she’s withholding from us. I think that just may be how Joan Didion’s mind works: with the removed analysis of a journalist. And it’s fascinating (and heartbreaking) to see how a mind like that functions under extreme situations. 

I feel a little guilty quoting such long sections here, which is probably against copyright, but I do so in the spirit of encouraging you to read the books in their entirety. Which you most certainly should do.

the plan for may:

It’s my birthday month, so I’m indulging myself with Anne Lamott. I’ve already read all of her stuff backwards and forwards, but hey, it’s my party and I’ll read Lamott if I want to.

6 comments… add one
  • Carrie Pomeroy May 6, 2009 @ 21:12

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Didion and that wonderful passage about rock musicians from “The White Album.” Yum. I love the deadpan tone. I’ll have to get that one from the library.

    I read “The Year of Magical Thinking” a while back and was struck by how beautifully she “got” how grief affects the mind–and you were right, part of the power of the book is the way she uses detail that lets you the reader understand her relationships and memories, rather than actually describing her own feelings.

    • patricia May 6, 2009 @ 23:24

      Yum indeed. I love that passage. That collection has more just like that one, including some great paragraphs about the Doors. So yes, find it at the library!

  • susan May 7, 2009 @ 9:06

    I really enjoyed this post. I am putting Didion on my list. This is just the way to go about finding out how good writing works. Find the parts that speak to you and figure out what it is the writer is doing. I loved the “you might have been useful with the thermometer” the way the humor crackles in the anger and grief.

    • patricia May 7, 2009 @ 17:50

      Yes, that’s my favorite line in the passage too.

      And “finding out how good writing works” is just why I started this project. I don’t always analyze the writing deeply enough by just reading it. But writing these posts forces me to look more closely. (Then again, I often feel like I’m just glazing over the author–there’s always so much more to notice.)

      In Magical Thinking, Didion writes recalls more than one time in which her husband–also a writer–was rereading a book, or a section in a book, to “find out how it worked”. I found that endearing.

      Thanks for the kind words about the post, Susan.

  • Kristin May 11, 2009 @ 20:13

    I enjoyed your analysis. Thanks for your insightful interpretation.

    • patricia May 11, 2009 @ 20:31

      Thanks, Kristin!

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