The Week of Joan Didion
I am a huge fan of reading, but I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly well read. I don’t usually read bestsellers right away because I’m afraid they won’t live up to all the hype. I’m not huge on mystery or science fiction, so those are pretty much out. I haven’t read a classic since college, and most of those were read hastily at 4:00 in the morning for my 8:00 Comparative Literature class. When I’m talking with another bookworm, I’ve usually not read at least three quarters of the books they’re crazy for. “You’ve never read A Clockwork Orange? You missed Water for Elephants? Oh, I’m buying you a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking right now!”
I am very lucky to be staying this week with a friend who has a bookshelf full of books that, for the most part, I’ve never read. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read her favorite author, Joan Didion. In fact, there were more Didion memoirs and nonfiction essays on that shelf than I would ever be able to read in a week. Didion is one of those ultra-prolific writers whose books I’ve always meant to start, but have never gotten around to. Now, faced with a whole shelf’s worth of my friend’s Didion devotion and a free week in front of me, I no longer had an excuse. My friend recommended that I start with the early essay collection, The White Album, and then move on to Didion’s most recent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.
The White Album is a collection of nonfiction essays that chronicle Didion’s life in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Didion, who wrote for Vogue and Life, has a knack for capturing specific and often humorous details of her life and her surroundings. A simple event like going to dinner with a friend or having a migraine headache is transformed into an intriguing story that comments on modern society. In the essay, “On the Mall,” Didion discusses her fascination with American mini-malls. Upon asking a woman at a party to name her favorite Joyce Carol Oates novel, the woman responded, “Wonderland,” because “my husband has a branch there.” Didion discovers that the woman was referring to a mall in Detroit. Even Didion herself admits that she once walked into a mall to pick up the day’s New York Times, but left with caramel corn, nail polish, straw hats and a toaster. Although Didion is clearly a well-respected, highbrow writer with lots of accomplished, celebrity friends, she is not afraid to admit her guilty pleasures, making her voice feel very approachable and human.
Didion was raised in Los Angeles, and The White Album features several essays about the Getty Center, Hollywood and Malibu. Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I felt vindicated while reading Didion’s essay about Getty and his “ostentatious” museum. I went to the Getty Center for the first time a few months ago after being told how wonderful it was by my friends and neighbors. I found it to be a bit stuffy, and I was relieved that Didion shared my opinion. “Something about the place embarrasses people,” Didion writes candidly. “The collection itself is usually referred to as ‘that kind of thing,’ as in, ‘not even the best of that kind of thing’ or ‘absolutely top-drawer if you like that kind of thing,’ both of which translate ‘not our kind of thing.’” Although some writers may feel apprehensive when writing a disapproving essay about one of Los Angeles’ most treasured and popular museums, Joan Didion expresses her opposing opinions with style and wit.
In The White Album, Didion’s writing is the most poignant when she is using quotations from people she speaks with, passages from relevant books and poems and her own observations to create a sort of literary collage. As Didion describes living in California, for example, she cites a Karl Shapiro poem called “California Winter” that she had hung on the wall in her kitchen. “It is raining in California, a straight rain,” Didion quotes. “Cleaning the heavy oranges on the bough, Filling the gardens till the gardens flow, Shining the olives, tiling the gleaming tile, Waxing the dark camellia leaves more green, Flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile.” Didion cites the poem in an essay about visiting the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project, describing the necessity and beauty of clean water. Like a painter adding one layer of paint onto the canvas after another, Didion seems careful and aware of the image she is creating by folding both well-known and obscure literary sources into her own writing.
In the second Didion book I read this week, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion uses the same analytical style and mishmash of literary quotations to bring herself through her own emotional turmoil. The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Didion at age seventy-one, is a true account of the year after her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, died. During this year, Didion’s only child, Quintana, was diagnosed with pneumonia, septic shock, and bleeding in the brain, and was in and out of intensive care and physical therapy. In the book, Didion allows readers to enter her thought process during an incredibly difficult period of her life.
I know I’m a little late on reading The Year of Magical Thinking, which was published about five years ago, but for those who haven’t read it yet, prepare to bawl. Didion’s straightforward, even-paced writing is interspersed with touching memories of her husband and daughter. Some lines repeat themselves over and over throughout the book, like the phrase, “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” As Didion analyzes her feelings of grief, the book seems to spin in circles, giving the reader a startlingly accurate picture of the way the mind analyzes small details over and over during a time of crisis.
Additionally, The Year of Magical Thinking may have served as a coping mechanism for Didion. Because she feels comfortable communicating her feelings by writing, Didion chooses to write about her own grief, which I’m sure was no easy task. After dreaming about feeling abandoned by her husband several months after his death, Didion asks the poignant question, “was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?” It may be the case that writing was the only conscious way the author knew to cope during the difficult year. By allowing herself to appear vulnerable and write everything she feels, Didion has created an honest and genuine look at how deeply grief affects the human psyche.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion also introduced me to the beautiful prose of her husband, who was also a writer. In the book, Didion dissects quotations from Dunne’s own memoirs and novels to gain insight into his thoughts about life and death. Didion’s use of outside material adds an additional dimension to the book, which was almost like reading an analytical research paper about the author’s own life.
In The White Album, Didion’s voice is calm and calculated, while in The Year of Magical Thinking, her voice is more vulnerable. But in both books, Didion maintains a consistent style that is a pleasure to read, whether she is speaking about her dislike for the Getty Center, or her deep adoration for her late husband. Joan Didion, who was just a name to me last week, is now a writer I respect and look forward to reading over and over again. And now, when a friend asks me if I’ve ever read The Year of Magical Thinking, I can say, “Yes, I have, and it was wonderful.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.