By Parul Sehgal
Joan Didion was 5 years old when she wrote her first story, upon the instruction of her mother, who had told her to stop whining and to write down her thoughts. She amused herself by describing a woman who imagines she is about to freeze to death, only to die burning instead.
“I have no idea what turn of a 5-year-old’s mind could have prompted so insistently ‘ironic’ and exotic a story,” she later wrote. “It does reveal a certain predilection for the extreme which has dogged me into adult life.”
For a half-century, Didion, who died Thursday at 87, was the grand diagnostician of American disorder in essays of strong, unmistakable cadence, churning with floods and fire.
A fifth-generation Californian, she once said, “Don’t you think people are formed by the landscape they grew up in?”
She was our landscape. She fashioned a style that was dominant, inescapable, catchy. “I’m not much interested in spontaneity,” she once said. “I’m not an inspirational writer. What concerns me is total control.” Her great subjects — the temptation and corruption of self-delusion, the fabrication of political narratives — are now staples of journalism. Her heroines — those chic, obliquely wounded sylphs — seem ubiquitous in contemporary fiction. The rapt self-fascination she demonstrated in essays about her possessions, her rituals — she could make migraines sound aspirational — are the lingua franca of a certain kind of personal writing on the internet. She essentially created the modern grief memoir with her book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she memorialized her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, who died of a sudden heart attack in 2003.
She was a writer preoccupied with and troubled by mythos — of youth, of America’s founding, of social movements, of the ’60s — and preternaturally gifted at fashioning her own. To recount her origins feels like revisiting a fairy tale: that first story written at 5; her learning to type by obsessively copying Hemingway’s sentences; her habit of storing drafts in the freezer; the way she returned to her childhood home to finish her first four books, in a bedroom painted carnation pink with green vines growing over the windows, filtering the light.
As a junior editor at Vogue magazine, Didion wrote short essays and captions for photographs. Her enigmatic novels followed, and the generation-defining essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” as well as screenplays, reporting from Central America, political thrillers and a pair of memoirs marking the deaths of Dunne and, a year and a half later, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. She stopped publishing new material in 2011, but collections of her journalism have since followed.
Didion captured her time, often reporting from the borders of her body — a seismologist of the self — sharing details from her own psychiatric reports (“an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968”).
“Can nothing be done to cheer this woman up?” Darcy O’Brien asked in a review of “The White Album.”
The case for the prosecution has been her snobbery, self-absorption, humorlessness, conservatism and overweening privilege.
But can anyone lampoon her style without relying on it? To condemn the “Didion narrative” and all that a sentimental attachment to her obscures — her mockery of early feminist organizing, for example — is to rely upon a form of criticism that she, more than anyone else, refined.
Her arresting hardness, the curious mix of detachment and furiously fixed gaze, were always part of her appeal. Her heroes included John Wayne and Georgia O’Keeffe — “this angelic rattlesnake,” she wrote. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she noted with strange, painful pride that her husband’s doctors called her a “cool customer.” “I don’t know what falling in love means,” she told Dunne in the documentary. “It’s not part of my world.”
But it is love she elicited — not mere admiration. What else explains our ability to hold all her contradictions or the fetishizing inspired by the details of her diet (Coca-Cola first thing in the mornings, salted almonds, cigarettes) and her packing list (Scotch, leotard, shawl, typewriter). The 50 yards of yellow theatrical silk she hung in her apartment in New York, sodden with rain. Love too that explains readers’ febrile identification and distortion: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest,” she once wrote, “remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Although the young Didion — of the “fulfilled paranoia” and the frangipani leis, who boarded planes barefoot and wept as she walked down the wedding aisle — seems lodged in the imagination, she was a writer of greater variety and evolution than she is often credited for. But one thread zigzags through her work, a bit eccentrically — an identical epiphany arrived at repeatedly and each time felt anew. Coming out of youth, she compared herself to Raskolnikov, berating herself for thinking she was exempt from consequences; later, she wrote of “the golden rhythm” breaking, then again of being disabused of the “conviction that the lights would always turn green for me.” Watching her daughter grow up, again she experiences that startling awareness: the vanishing of “the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life.” This writer could not tire of telling her reader, telling herself, that luck runs out — perhaps because she never really believed it, not when there was more life to be lived.
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” she once wrote. “I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
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