We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction
by Joan Didion, with an introduction by John Leonard
Everyman’s Library, 1,122 pp., $30.00
Suppose, then, we imagine a mind always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both senses and intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to say what is no longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present.
—Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
The Sacramento papers, however, simply mirror the Sacramento peculiarity, the Valley fate, which is to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.
—Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter”
I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
—Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” writing at the age of twenty-seven
Probably most Americans have somewhere in our family tree, in the still remembered or the invisible past, stories of a hardship endured—a tyranny escaped, or servitude or poverty outlasted—that would make our current life feel slack by comparison if we could savor the harsh details. Not as many of us have forebears who were so situated, once their hardship ended, as to consider themselves among the founders of an iconic American way of life. Fewer still grew up in the place where this origin myth took hold, generations later and surrounded by its relics.
Such has been the strange, glamorous, burdensome inheritance of Joan Didion. The year in which the story begins, 1846, is a year that, during the triumphant midcentury of Didion’s youth, would have been understood as a turning point in history—the start of a long arc of American ascendance, heralded by historian Bernard DeVoto as the “Year of Decision.” Two decades ahead of the transcontinental railroad that made the journey a reasonable one to attempt, Didion’s great-great-great-grandmother set out from the Missouri Territory, where family before her had previously migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas to the banks of the White River (the same patch of the future state of Arkansas that in the 1990s would bring down upon us the specious labors of Kenneth Starr, prompting Didion later to note, “This is a country at some level not as big as we like to say it is”). Traveling west, this pioneer ancestor rode with the Donner party. But she escaped its outlandish fate as part of a group that peeled off in northwest Nevada and headed for Oregon. On a separate crossing, another great-great-great-grandmother of Didion’s helped to guide her party’s oxen and mules across land not yet set up for their journey; she faced death from mountain fever and saw one child die and gave birth to another.
The women of these and then the next two generations, cut off from old ways but eventually established in newly American Sacramento, still managed to pass on to later generations a few of their delicate heirlooms and intricately worked textiles, samples of which would one day hang on Didion’s wall. The men of the family left behind land and the ethos of the ranch owner, whose identity depended on the vigilant assertion of boundaries. Emotionally, their legacy seems both attractive and impossible. It’s hard to live up to an ideal of pure action, on the one hand, and on the other hand a dream of refinement, consciously cultivated in adversity. It’s hard to pay enough tribute to the past while living out its lesson that you’re the child of radical new beginnings.
In fact, Didion spent a couple of crucial childhood years on the move, outside of California, near army bases in Colorado and North Carolina and Washington State, while her father worked on military contracts during World War II. Judging from Hawaii’s frequent appearance in her early writing it seems likely that her emotions and thoughts were also drawn to this island colonial outpost, which, before the shock of Pearl Harbor, had been the summer escape of choice for Sacramento society. Did these years give Didion training in a second paradox that would later add tension to her prose? In such uprooted circumstances, a sensitive child might feel a special proximity to world-changing events. Yet the very up-closeness of her perspective, so much more alive to her than the general national understanding, might also make it feel like a kind of periphery. And on the periphery, it’s easier to make observations that buck the consensus timeline of history.
When the Didions did live at home, for instance, it was clear that California’s founding days were long over. Partly to blame, or so it seemed to her family at the time, was America’s boosterish transformation after the war. (Much later, in her 2003 memoir Where I Was From, she would challenge this old belief, hinting at some historical blind spots and the family tendency to depression that had fostered it.) Starting in the 1940s, linked booms in aerospace and real estate were turning millions of newcomers into Californians. Grateful to own their homes, maybe a bit too hopeful about the weather, these newcomers tended to see the land as subdividable, not hallowed. Worse, from the conservative old-timer’s point of view, was their eager participation in a mass phenomenon, half orchestrated for them by the government and by banks offering loans. These new Californians bet their lives on the future. “My own childhood,” Didion would write in “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour.”
As a young woman, Didion would dedicate herself to recovering in prose her descendants’ confusing legacy of pride and obsolescence. She was interested in the unique power of writers to stake claim on a place. “Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” she would propose in The White Album. “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway.” For a young writer starting out now, this late-modernist ambition of ownership might be a more fraught goal to pursue: artists today may have lost some of the old vastness of aspiration, but they have gained something of value in an awareness that Kilimanjaro exists because it exists. Still, it was in rendering the landscape in and around Sacramento in her first novel, Run River (1963), that Didion began to find her stunning spare rhythms and her distinctive approach to detail: blankly elemental for stretches, then tense with specificity, and gathering by the end of her best sentences an energy of suspense. In this brief sample of a much longer passage, the heroine rides home from San Francisco to Sacramento through untouristed California farmland and backwater Main Streets:
The afternoon heat could bleach those towns so clean that the houses and the buildings seemed always on the verge of dematerializing; there was the sense that to close one’s eyes on a Valley town was to risk opening them a moment later on dry fields, the sun bleaching out the last traces of habitation, a flowered straw hat, a neon advertisement which had blinked a moment before from a wall no longer visible: More Yield from Every Acre with Seeds from Northrup-King.
Writing here seems to function like a kind of insurance, keeping the record for later, in case familiar things suddenly up and disappear. And notice a striking phrase: “There was the sense that…” Soon enough, declarations in this vein would become a signature move in Didion’s work as a journalist. Boldly, she would mix authority and impressionism, the objective-sounding “there was” with the far more elusive “sense”—a transient perception, usually attributable to one perceiving mind. And in so doing, she would come up against one of the key problems in American nonfiction prose in the last half-century. She herself would help to formulate the problem, in fact, and she has never stopped trying—not to solve it, for there may be no solution, but to stay in its challenging presence.
The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?
Intelligent and fiercely styled as her five novels are, Didion’s lasting reputation will be as a writer of nonfiction. Still, it’s important that she trained herself early and devoutly in the art of fiction-writing, and that her best journalism has reached for the artistic play and the wider moral mysteries of literature. The tag of “New Journalism,” applied to her work in the 1960s and 1970s and yoking her with the looser jottings of the likes of Tom Wolfe, matters far less than this. We know from her reverent acknowledgments in print, and from the many interviews she has given over the years, several of the writers she loved. She read Hemingway and Henry James for their very different modeling of an ideal sentence, and she learned from Conrad how a writer might want to hide his meaning in the side pocket of the story. In college, she underlined passages in Henry Adams’s pioneeringly alienated yet history-minded memoir. The spirit of Evelyn Waugh, whom Didion praised in an early uncollected magazine piece, seems visible, if not always to the best effect, behind the valedictory-aristocratic mood of Run River. But it seems mixed in with explorations of American honor and hucksterism influenced by her readings of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, whose narrative daring and social antennae she also admired.
These are a few of Didion’s acknowledged early influences. Unlike several of them, she also had from the start a degree of pop charisma. But this too may have been more complicated than it looked. I’d suggest there’s one more category in which to think about her—a category not of influence or intent but of temperament. There is a certain kind of writer who may be melancholy and shy in youth, absorbing the insecurity of her surroundings. When young, she may keep a notebook in which she makes contact with wild possibilities, dreams, and anxious nightmares. (Of her notebook at the age of five, Didion recalls, “The first entry is an account of a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in the Arctic night, only to find, when day broke, that she had stumbled onto the Sahara Desert, where she would die of the heat before lunch.”)
A writer who may be a natural performer when she goes out in the world may still suffer from a self-consciousness that must, somehow, become part of what she has to offer. She will innovate not through a freely flowing expression of self but through a persistent, hard-won perfectionism of style; her style will defend against anxieties that the reader can still sense, and, indeed, that the reader soon starts looking to this writer to portray. Nostalgia, even outright romanticism will be expressed in her work. But they will also be teased and undercut. Grief will be transformed into perceptions of absurdity and futility. The voice will be one of controlling irony, yet somehow it will manage to speak to the reader with a great reader’s communicative intuition.
Thurber was such a writer in My Life and Hard Times, recalling semifictionally the disappearing Columbus, Ohio, of his youth, and the grandfather who believed well into the twentieth century that the Civil War was still on. Borges, who grew up surrounded by truly intimidating relics of his ancestors’ nation-founding heroism in nineteenth-century Argentine war and politics, built out of disassociative fragments a new literature. All three writers, though outrageously different in their output, are evokers of apprehension, at their best in tightly economical rather than capacious forms, at risk of mannerism when they drift off their game, and master builders of a persona. And all three are students of a problem of time in the Americas, where pioneering days segue into booms which themselves don’t last, and those who choose to remember the past also fear being buried by it.
After college, at Berkeley, victory in an essay contest won Didion a job at Vogue, where she continued learning to prune every excess beat of prose. In just a few years she was publishing some of her most celebrated work. The 1961 essay “On Self-Respect” introduces the brooding persona, delicate in sensibility but roused by her ancestors’ stoicism to be tough, convincing us of her separateness through a paradoxical rapport with her audience. This early piece and its 1966 companion “On Keeping a Notebook” achieve a degree of light, uninterrupted command that is rare in American writing. The strategies of voice that Didion plays with in these two pieces and also in the beautiful recollection of her New York years, “Goodbye to All That” (observing, observing herself observing, sometimes turning to acknowledge, even to negotiate her position with the reader), are still studied by younger writers struggling to learn control of the instrument.
But these were the 1960s, and Didion’s first collected volume of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, made her famous upon publication in 1968 for her often dissenting take on the times. In the introduction, Didion explains the provenance of the book’s reported centerpiece, which sent her to Haight-Ashbury to spend time with the hippie kids who were bringing their chaos to what had been, until quite recently, a snobbish, provincial city. “I went to San Francisco,” she wrote, “because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act.” Appearing often in her early work, and folding easily into the overall mood of ironized grief, this kind of declaration of doubt can feel at times like a writer’s flourish. But on looking back, the concern seems consistent and painfully real.
“Style is character”: at several points in her career, Didion has offered this sentence as one of her core beliefs. But what does it mean? Not that you are what you look like, or that what you look like is what counts. Style is the writer’s site of decision-making—literally, the site of actions whose integrity can be measured. It is the place where the self meets the world. And so Didion felt a need to do what for her was, by her own admission, extremely difficult: go out and meet the world.
It’s fascinating that in Britain two years ago, a grouping of Didion’s first three volumes of collected pieces, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), and After Henry (1992), was published under the surprisingly humble title Live and Learn. Her early grasp of voice can make us forget that she was still a young writer hoping, working, willing herself to come into maturity, in fits and starts and in public. Precocious also in her professionalism, she produced through changing moods and circumstances and locales, rising as a freelancer to meet the demands of apple-and-orange magazine assignments. It is hard to explain, if you have never given it a shot, what a tricky thing this is to do. Some of the pieces in Slouching Towards Bethlehem were profiles of zeitgeist characters of the time upon whom she chose to train her budding novelist’s eye for character. She hung out with Joan Baez, presenting her as an update of one of Henry James’s satirizable American idealists. She mused about late-career Howard Hughes, whose fetish for private mobility got him tagged as crazy but allowed him to live out a secret American dream. In more personal pieces, tonally more fractured and rueful, she declared her isolation from the same times, giving us self-portraits of a woman enjoying a rich but not invulnerable marriage to fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and a woman who ventured out into stretches of California landscape that shrugged off her gaze.
As is well known, Didion started out a Goldwater conservative. The outlook is not directly spelled out in her first book, but it is gleanable in what she barely mentions (Vietnam, Martin Luther King) and in some of what she does highlight: John Wayne’s admirable confidence, the pathos of the hippies and of the atomization that produced them, the pious platitudes of a hubristic, high-rolling liberal think tank that was famous in 1967 but now seems like an exotic fossil. Her second collection, The White Album, continued down a similar zigzagging path—giving insightful insider tours through such Golden State phenomena as the highway life and tribal Hollywood alternating with fragments of personal anomie, alternating with beautifully and originally composed, judging snapshots of emblematic and offbeat scandals, figures, and movements of the era, among them the Doors, feminism, and the new, then-controversial Getty Museum.
Because Didion’s later reporting on politics, often for this magazine, took a turn generally more critical of a reawakened American conservatism—and critical, also, of paralyzed Democratic accommodation—it’s sometimes been said that at some point in the decades after these first two books she was radicalized, or at least nudged toward something more like traditional liberalism. To argue this is to ignore how much the writing life has always been her central concern, and how much politics has always been a secondary, if all too gift-giving, subject. All along her aimed-for target has been behavior that is in error, above all behavior that resists—and therefore demands from the observing writer—irony.
But it’s true that something does seem to shift in her work. Early on, it seems to me, she is still in training as the capturer of moods and moments. Her ambition is to render thoroughly and truthfully her point of view, even if that point of view occasionally contains what she admits to be aspects of emotional projection. “However dutifully we record what we see around us,” she had warned in “On Keeping a Notebook,” “the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” Another line from that gorgeous but youthful essay, in response to the challenging of her memory by relatives: “Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”
In contrast, by the later 1970s and especially the 1980s, Didion has begun to balance out that “implacable ‘I,’” and to train a bit more of her method, discipline, and style on the truth of “what happened”—or on what she really had the knack for spotting, the euphemisms people rely on to avoid naming that truth. To be clear: I don’t mean to imply that Didion does not remain, today, ready to pop a balloon whenever she thinks she spots liberalism both in power and drifting into one of its overconfident-engineering, sainthood-seeking, hypocrisy-encouraging, or inaction-masking ruts. She is ready and will no doubt do so again. But to her habitual old skepticisms she has added by the 1980s a new weariness. From now on, she will be on the watch as well for those who cloak the past in mystique, or who tragicomically misread it.
And here I suspect that instead of a political allegiance-shifting, there is a personal strain of self-correction that has not generally been recognized. For in a surprising number of places in her early work, she had expressed an identification with Southerners, people who find strength in the maintenance of ritual, “colonials in a far country”—with those who insist against all odds on remembering. It’s this attitude, this strength of identification, this projection outward of a needed meaning that her later work will frequently challenge.
In June 1982, Didion goes to war-stricken El Salvador, and writes a pained account of what it’s like to be, essentially, a journalistic tourist to a place in full-blown trauma. She calls on what is by now a fully worked out talent for atmosphere. But she does so with a sense of frustration, finding that vivid metaphors, pathetic fallacies, and tellingly odd juxtapositions are more literary than investigative techniques; they won’t get to the truth of what is going on:
I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony.
It is in this book that Didion starts to become an increasingly dogged processor of what she found, grappling with bureaucratic reports and official statements, combing more systematically through news accounts looking for clues and quotable details. It’s almost as if manipulatable statistics, rhetorical obfuscations, and drifting bites of information were the light and the sounds in a new atmosphere, a landscape more abstractly moral than physical, which she has to teach herself all over again a method to render. Again, too, there will be the highwire act, mixing authority and impressionism. At the center of this experience is not just El Salvador in its suffering, but the American mistake, hideously consequential, of attempting to edit reality:
the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country.
In 1985 Didion starts going to Miami. Where she had once written possessively of California’s lost legacy (there are strangely few Mexicans or Mexican-Americans in her early California, but there are hastily judged midwestern arrivals), now, as an outsider, she conducts rounds of interviews, slips in and around the city, and pours through reams of material to write of the claims of competing groups—Anglos blithely ignorant of their nonhegemony, African-Americans mostly ignored, Cuban-Americans defining themselves in relationship to a handful of events in the past. This last theme is especially, creepily fertile in light of the present day. It leads her back to the Cuban-Americans’ perceived betrayal by Kennedy; she then traces the aggrieved memory of betrayal up through the 1980s, when it becomes available as energy to a gambling coterie of conservative foreign policy evangelists united in the belief that “America must seize the initiative or perish.” Briefly but presciently—if only her hunch had turned out to be wrong—she lingers on the figure of one Jack Wheeler, successful salesman at conservative briefings of a cutting-edge new idea: to defeat the USSR, at long last, by arming an Islamic revival.
In certain obvious ways, Didion’s political writing from then on will be less personal and as a result occasionally drier, denser with fact. On the other hand, she will draw a new kind of momentum from writing often in longer arcs, telling a more cohesive story, ironically, about how we need falsified stories for sentimental comfort. Also, in places she will be funnier. The Reagans in particular, familiar to her for decades before the presidency with their studio-trained simulation of a California heritage, seem to free up a buoyant wit. For if her originality in the 1960s had been to point out the cost to too many Americans of too quickly unmooring from the past, her originality now was to narrate the maladaptive, repeated commission of error by those in charge. The first problem is a tragedy. The second problem, more infuriating because it involves the powerful and in the end far more dangerous, is still at least partly a farce. Covering the Democratic presidential primaries of 1988, Didion would give early warning of a drastic shrinking of the political process by a pliant press trading away judgment for access, and by candidates assenting to deliberately meaningless events, while pressured to apply kitsch narratives of character.
In “Insider Baseball,” her shrewd, funny account of those primaries that is ahead of the curve and galvanized by disgust, Didion would foresee the trivialization and manipulatability of America’s political process to come. This crisis, which for twenty years has shocked in its ability to get worse before it gets better, is only now starting to meet with real pushback—too late to reverse the damage. Fans of The Daily Show who enjoy the moment when Jon Stewart, having run down the day’s news in the political horserace, rubs his hands over his eyes like a child wishing away a bogeyman, should take a look. Didion, with her criticisms of bad faith and pandering, did some of this first, in her own way.
A broad question to ask is whether narrative must really always be a lie, and resistance to clichés always the correct position. In politics and in private life, couldn’t what is comforting and what allows us to act be, just once in a while, also true? The answer given in The Year of Magical Thinking, the new stage adaptation of Didion’s 2005 memoir starring Vanessa Redgrave, would at first glance appear to be no.* The story is by now well known, but not less upsetting to revisit. Soon after Didion’s daughter fell ill, then slipped into a coma, John Gregory Dunne, her husband and intimate writing colleague of forty years, died in an instant of a heart attack. To this story the play adds the further tragedy that occurred after the memoir’s publication: the eventual death of their daughter. Redgrave is charismatic as she narrates Didion’s recounting of memories, and her half-hallucinated mechanisms for coping, and her gropingly slow return to herself, but never again to normalcy. And it’s a tribute to the actress and Didion’s words that in a long, uninterrupted monologue of the most minimal physical action, the viewer’s attention never wanders.
Still, there has always been in Redgrave’s pale eyes and formidable stature a serenity of conviction that’s quite different from Didion’s energy. She offers a hint of conquest—even though grief is a subject for which there may be no words. When I saw the play in previews, it ended on a note uniting doctrine and geology: all things turn to dust, even as the person manages to survive. This is powerful, but also powerful in the book is the figure of John Gregory Dunne, surviving in shards of memory from disparate decades. He even grows, in a way, as Didion learns that there are things about him she may never fully understand, and grants him the loving distance of his otherness. There’s an acceptance in the book of the confusions of time that feels new in Didion’s work—almost. In fact, a similar note appears, albeit briefly, in the string of recollections that make up the essay “Pacific Distances,” from After Henry.
The memory has to do with a visit Didion makes in 1979 to lecture to her daughter’s junior high school English class. Her assignment for the lecture, which seems to her almost too overwhelming to carry out, is to trace back through time the path she followed to become a writer. This pushes her back to all the old questions about how time works to form, and reform, and deform, the self. How does each new phase of life follow from the previous one? Logically, or through a sudden discontinuity? Do we leave crucial parts of ourselves in the past, and count on forgetting who we used to be? Or the opposite: do we draw strength from the false belief that we’re changing and growing, when in fact we’re stubbornly staying the same?
These are questions of obvious consequence to a novelist. But in her nonfiction Didion has also tried to make them matter a little more to thinking readers, and to the self-understanding and sane action of a nation. Still, we can never definitively answer such questions. We can only guess. And when circumstances seem to change, we can guess again:
I suppose that what I really wanted to say that day at my daughter’s school is that we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us as a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.
These are sad words, but their plain uncertainty, moving beyond fear or judgment, anticipates what will come into fuller bloom decades later in The Year of Magical Thinking. Here are two qualities in Didion’s best work that have sometimes been harder for the reader to recognize than her dedication to craft, staying power, acuity, orneriness, and sometimes severe expectations of herself and of us: her courage, and the generosity of her urge to share experience, to transmit wisdom in case it might help, even if the substance of the wisdom is that, honestly, she doesn’t know.