Like a lot of Americans, I read Joan Didion as a teenager and was captivated. I devoured her essays, felt I had encountered a writer of extraordinary gifts, her keen insights conveyed in brilliant prose. She showed to me a side of America I had never seen but knew existed out there somewhere. Her famous essay "Slouching towards Bethlehem" begins like this:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
For me at 17, this was revelatory. All I knew (outside of books) was middle class suburban and small town life among what I saw as thoughtless people leading meaningless lives. Didion set up for me another pole of America: on the one hand was the tedium of a highly structured and tightly constrained bourgeois existence, on the other the collapsing fringe where life dissolved into drugs, promiscuity, and despair.
So when I rebelled against the tedious miasma of high school, I also seethed with disgust against those who sought to escape it with drugs, free love, Maoist nonsense, and tie-dye.
At 17, my answer was to get beyond all this mediocrity and soar on wings of intellect. My joys were science, history, and ethnography, and my greatest love was for the long ago and far away. My idols were the thinkers who penetrated the veil of existence; but I also had another class of heroes, the skeptics who doubted everything, both the common wisdom and the uncommon nonsense found in the social fringe. I believed myself better than all of this: I thought I understood what others did not, and recognized the folly of senseless, self-destructive rebellion.
It worked, for a while anyway.
But back to our subject.
For many people, including Didion, revulsion against the doings of hippies and outcasts was a conservative impulse. At the time she was a Goldwater Republican and behind her reaction to drugs, casual sex, and social breakdown, one could sense a longing for some sort of structured normality. But Didion always had admirers all over the political spectrum; to some leftists she was describing the inevitable collapse of capitalism, and the blame for all of this lay with the Man. She never suggested solutions to the problems she documented, nor did she get very deeply into causes. She simply described what she saw, and connected it to her own personal sense that everything was bad and wrong.
If anything defined Didion's career, it was a sense that everything is going to hell. A reviewer once asked, "Can no one cheer this woman up?" No, was the answer. After exhausting national collapse as a theme, in old age she turned her attention to personal losses, chronicling at length the deaths of her husband and daughter and her reactions to them. I've never read those books but many people admire their cold-eyed clarity; after all Didion lived her whole life expecting the worst, so she was ready when it came. I don't mean to dismiss that; there is a value to having death and loss described for us in the clearest words and most powerful sentences. Yet something about Didion always rubbed me wrong.
Look closely at Didion's writing and you see an intense devotion to fragmentation. If she receives good advice, she frames it as "Someone said to me that. . . ." The identity of this wise person, and her relationship with that person, are hidden, leaving Didion as lonely and adrift as possible. It was just something she heard, another voice in the chaos. The narrative leaps around in time and space with no transitions or explanations, and the quotations are carefully chosen to make the speakers seem confused and out of place. Wandering around San Francisco talking to hippies she meets one man determined to get rich as a music promoter. He lectures her about the disposable income of the young, tells her things he read in business magazines. But in Didion's telling he pops up in between one strung-out hippie and the next, so different from them that he seems, not a representative from a saner, more self-sustaining America, but another jagged fragment of a reality that makes no sense. I wanted to ask, ok, if you despise hippies, why do you also despise people trying to keep their heads clear and make a living? But in Didion's America businessmen were always sharks out for a fast buck, just another part of the chaos and cruelty. Wherever sanity, order, and moral strength were to be found, it was not among either capitalists or would-be revolutionaries.
As the sixties settled down, Didion turned her attention to other crises. Her politics drifted left, and she devoted attention to racism. She opposed the "tough on crime" movement of the 1980s, penned a stirring defense of the Central Park Five. She came to believe that the drifters she chronicled had not just dropped out of civilization, but had been driven out by a callous system. She despised the idealized American past she had been raised on, believed it was a lie and a fraud, and also that it was silly to imagine the 1890s had meaningful lessons for how we should live now.
But she never fit in on the left either, never found a movement she could join. She once described herself as
a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.
There is a view of contemporary life, to which I partially subscribe, that goes like this: You can walk the narrow path of bourgeois rectitude, carefully placing one foot in front of another, getting up every morning to brush your teeth, go to work, and do all the other required acts, or you can fall off into who knows what. You can believe that this is wrong and evil, or that it is just how life has to be, but that doesn't matter to you. All you face is the choice. Didion shot to fame as the chronicler of the who knows what, the cleverest answerer of the question, "what if we really threw it all over and just walked away?" Her characters are either trapped and desperate to escape, or on the road fleeing from everything, free because they have nothing left to lose.
When I read that Joan Didion had died, I almost immediately had two thoughts. One, she got famous because she believed American life is awful and wrote about it with style and cleverness; two, she got famous because she was at least partly right.