One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal.
Netflix’s release of a new documentary looking at the life and work of writer Joan Didion (The Center Will Not Hold, 2017) is a reminder that we owe a great deal to gifted observers who can help us understand what is in plain sight. Didion is 82 and the author of several novels. But her defining works are her non-fiction essays that cast a laser-focused eye on social landscapes that range from the social to the personal.
To be sure, not every landscape. The Sacramento native clearly has a bi-coastal bias. Her best work catches the turbulent 60s in California (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968) and the preoccupations of an earlier and more tumultuous New York. Her style is the journalism of deep narrative, sometimes catching in language what a camera might miss. Over a long career she has been a writer for all seasons, once producing articles for magazines as diverse as Vogue and The New York Review of Books. She also wrote screenplays with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
One of the most useful of Didion’s methods is to examine the same event though competing narratives: sometimes political, sometimes personal. The method is evident in her preference for the word “sentimental.” With the term she means more than a simple nostalgia. Didion uses it to describe the American preferences for safer and less self-indicting accounts of our collective behavior. She then will then overlay a second and often more troubling narrative that stings by virtue of its greater veracity.
Of the works I know, an essay deceptively named “Sentimental Journeys” is a favorite. Its subject is the story and arrest of the Central Park Five, the African American youths arrested after an alleged “wilding” incident in which a jogger was raped and left for dead in the Park’s northeast corner. It became significant in understanding how the press initially covered the event that the victim was white and affluent. The tabloids, Mayor Koch and publicity hounds like Donald Trump had convicted the five youths tried within hours of their arrests and ostensible confession. But Didion’s account doesn’t settle for self-satisfied judgments aligned against the boys, who were eventually acquitted after serving years in person. In her contemporaneous reporting the event was a morality tale about two New Yorks and their very different sets of resentments.
In this city rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives, what people said when they talked about the case of the Central Park jogger came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally volatile and similarly occult visions of the same disaster. One vision shared by those who had seized upon the attack on the jogger as an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, was of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass. The opposing vision, shared by those who had seized upon the arrest of the defendants as an exact representation of their own victimization, was of a city in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.1
Years later the analysis still reads as exactly right.
Details are the stock and trade of journalism. But they come from her as revealing packets of insight threaded into a narrative. In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) they are offered to flesh out short scenes that foretell the approaching death of her husband and–within two years–her daughter, Quintana. Both died from medical causes that she characterizes as “unlucky.” A weak heart took her husband, and septic shock ended the life of her daughter.
Where others might find their minds emptied by the disappearance of their family, Didion recovers small moments that she now wants to notice. There’s a flood of impressions and fantasies that surface as she tries to fill out long days in her New York apartment. Was there more to know in the suddenly still space? Why do we expect the deceased to appear in a doorway? Did John leave a message to be discovered?
Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered on the hood of the car. They live by symbols. The read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment of a decision to replace it. . . . One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, and what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?2
In nearly every description Didion suppresses the rhetorical impulse to reach for a grand conclusion or a panoramic summary. Her writing is like a good novel, revealing truths through action rather than as a “tell.” Her gift has been to help a reader discover patterns revealed in the smallest moments. This kind of writing is inherently meaningful to us because it replicates levels of consciousness we struggle to notice.
1“Sentimental Journeys,” in After Henry, 1992), p. 300.
2 The Year of Magical Thinking, (Knopf, 2005), p. 152-153.