Joan Didion deceased at 87: essential books, essays to read now

Joan Didion, who died Thursday at the age of 87, has produced decades of memorable works in all genres and subjects: personal essays, pop culture reports and reviews, domestic and foreign political dispatches and, towards the end of her career, a successful memory. and follow-up. Whether you’re a newcomer looking for a place to start or a reader looking to dig deeper, here’s a guide to writing Didion from start to finish:

The staff’

If a subset of his work made Didion’s reputation for “inevitable” sentences, it is the personal essays collected in “On the way to Bethlehem” (1968) and “The white album” (1979). These pieces, starting with “On self-respect” in 1961, and originally published in magazines such as Vogue, the American Scholar, and the Saturday Evening Post, became models in shape, elliptical, poetic, punctuated with the author’s eye to tell the details and tear up self-awareness. Didion’s essays carefully revealed and concealed the inner life of the correspondent:

Didion later described these essays as having been written under “accident circumstances” – “on self-respect” was improvised in “two sessions,” she reflected in 2007, and wrote “not just for a number of words or a number of lines, but a character to count “- yet they produced an astonishing number of unforgettable sentences:” I have already lost touch with a few people that I was “(“About keeping a notebook” a personal favorite); “It was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I discovered that all promises would not be kept” (“Goodbye to all that”, who invented the modern essay “leave New York”); “We tell each other stories to live” (“The White Album”, perhaps the definitive interpretation of the end of the 60s).

A number of additional magazine articles from his early career are collected in his final published work, “Let me tell you what I mean”(2021), and his observations of himself and the culture of the 1970s are central to his travelogue “South and West” (2017).

"Crouching towards Bethlehem," by Joan Didion

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The counter-culture report

In and among the ‘personalities’ of’ Slouching ‘and’ The White Album ‘are Didion’s cool cucumber lacerations from the late’ 60s, casting twin eyes at illusions of rocky-rimmed squares and revolutionary children. From the garish populism of the Getty and the Sacramento Reagans to a requiem for John Wayne, the marriage of bad taste and bad money fills where the center does not hold. The title essay of “The White Album” swirls with Jim Morrison, the “Manson family”, the famous dress of Linda Kasabian, Huey P. Newton and all the rest as Didion bravely refuses to make any sense of it all. The title essay in “Slouching” similarly culminates in the insane final image of a 3-year-old boy, neglected and in peril in a hippie squat. “On morality” and “The Women’s Movement” breathe the skeptical libertarianism that has kept her away from madness.

To see not only where the nation has moved but where Didion has done, it’s worth reading the early bits from California, including “Notes from an Indigenous Girl,” followed by “Where I was from” (2003), who completely demolishes the disastrous Californian autonomy myth, step by step, anatomizing its dependence on government largesse since the days of the gold rush – water, power , the military-industrial muscle. And finally, she turns in on herself: the pioneer who has never been.

Play As It Sits by Joan Didion

The novels

Throughout her career Didion was best known for her non-fiction, but her five novels evoke an equally piquant sense of place and time. His first book, “Running the river”(1963) – inspired, she would later write, by profound homesickness – is a family melodrama about the descendants of pioneers that draws heavily on Didion’s upbringing in Sacramento. Perhaps his most famous novel, “Play it as it turns out” (1970), takes place in a very different California: the Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, imbued with the anomie of its dissolute heroine, Maria Wyeth. (His opening monologue begins with an icy allusion to Othello: “What makes Iago mean? Some people ask. I never ask.”)

But Didion’s most underrated writing can be found in three novels that reflect his growing interest in and distrust of the American Empire abroad. Located in the fictional Central American nation of Boca Grande, “A book of common prayer” (1977) features both an acid satire of corrupt US-backed regimes and a tragic riff on the Patty Hearst story, as protagonist Charlotte Douglas searches for her daughter Marin, who is on the loose with a terrorist organization. Marxist. His interest in American meddling in the region and the absurdities of the end of the Cold War reappears in his latest work of fiction, “The last thing he wanted”(1996), about a journalist and a government official who fall in love in the middle of a covert arms smuggling operation reminiscent of Iran-Contra.

He is “The democracy(1984), However, it brings these personal and political themes together in the most extraordinary ensemble, tracing a history of violence and exploitation from the colonization of Hawaii at the dawn of the atomic age to produce Didion’s response to the novel on Vietnam War. She even introduces herself as a narrator: “Democracy,” which takes place in the early 1970s, is told from the perspective of “Joan Didion,” whose focused rehearsals and circular logic as she attempts to piece the story together. of an American senator, of his wife and her lover foreshadows those of his successful memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005).

"Salvador," by Joan Didion

The political commentary

Although most of Joan Didion’s textbooks start, like this one, with personal essays, my introduction to Didion – and the one I recommend if you want to become as obsessed with his writing as I do – came with “Democracy” and the tests in “Political fictions” (2001). Beginning in the 1980s, when she forged a close working relationship with legendary New York Review of Books editor-in-chief Robert Silvers, Didion diverted attention from her reporting from culture: she relayed searing descriptions of war-torn El Salvador in “Salvador” (1983), captured the conspiracy fever that surrounds much of U.S.-Cuban politics by “Miami” (1987) and detailed the ways in which 9/11 became a chauvinist club in “Fixed ideas” (2003).

But for their overwhelmingly comprehensive and ultimately devastating authority, there is perhaps no better place to understand our current political disaster, and the role of the media in it, than Didion’s dispatches of the 1988 presidential campaigns (” Insider Baseball “) and 1992 (” Eyes on the Prize “), his exasperated reflections on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (” Clinton Agonists “) or his poisonous and funny kidnapping of Bob Woodward (” The Deferential Spirit “, 1996), author of books “in which measurable brain activity is virtually absent.”

She also applied the technique in the overwhelming “Sentimental Journeys” (collected in the years 1992 “After Henri“), detailing the process by which politicians and the press steered the Central Park Five into the greenhouse atmosphere of late 1980s New York City.

"The year of magical thinking," by Joan Didion

Late memories

Despite a career in which she befriended celebrities like Natalie Wood and Tony Richardson – and employed Harrison Ford as a carpenter – Didion reached the peak of her notoriety with her blockbuster memoir, “The year of magical thinking,Published in 2005. While she had experimented with the form two years earlier in “Where I Was From”, it was her lucid and heartbreaking dissection of grief that captured the imagination of the general public, earning her wide acclaim and success. the National Book Award. “Magical Thinking” chronicles a year in Didion’s life in which she grappled with Dunne’s death in 2003 from cardiac arrest and the serious illness of her daughter Quintana Roo, combining her readings from Sigmund Freud and Emily Post with vivid memories of one of the most intimate weddings in 20th century literature. Its follow-up, “Blue nights” (2011), who looked back on Quintana’s untimely death in 2005, offered a more caustic outlook, researching her relationship with her daughter during times when she got caught on the wrong foot while revealing her own declining health. In the process, she developed a late style of her own – incantatory and poetic but never (God forbid) sentimental.


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