Joan Didion: Risk & Triumph

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Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Malibu, California, 1977

We are uneasy about a story until we know who is telling it.

—Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer

It is rare to find a biographer so temperamentally, intellectually, and even stylistically matched with his subject as Tracy Daugherty, author of well-received biographies of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, is matched with Joan Didion; but it is perhaps less of a surprise if we consider that Daugherty is himself a writer whose work shares with Didion’s classic essays (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968; The White Album, 1979; Where I Was From, 2003) a brooding sense of the valedictory and the elegiac, crushing banality and heartrending loss in American life. To Daugherty, born in 1955, Didion has long been a visionary, “a powerful voice for my generation.” So identifying with his subject, who has suffered personal, familial losses in recent years, as well as a general disillusionment with American politics, the biographer inevitably becomes “an elegist, writing lamentations”; Didion’s memoir Blue Nights (2011), a meditation upon motherhood and aging as well as an elegy for Didion’s daughter Quintana, who died at the age of thirty-nine in 2005, is “not just a harrowing lullaby but our generation’s last love song.”

Chronological in its basic structure, The Last Love Song is not a conventional biography so much as a life of the artist rendered in biographical mode: we pick up crucial facts, so to speak, on the run, as we might in a novel (for instance, in Didion’s debut novel Run River, 1963), in the midst of other bits of information: “By 1934, the year of Didion’s birth, the levees [on the Sacramento River] had significantly reduced flooding.” We learn that Didion’s first, crucial reader was her mother, Eduene, a former Sacramento librarian descended from a Presbyterian minister and his wife who followed the Donner-Reed party west but decided to split from the doomed group in Nevada in 1846. An acquaintance of the family tells Daugherty that the Didions and their extended families “were part of Sacramento’s landed gentry…families who called themselves agriculturalists, farmers, ranchers, progressives, but they were the owners, not the ones who got their hands dirty.” With a novelist’s empathy Daugherty notes:

For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…. A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.

Many passages in The Last Love Song read with the fluency of fiction, and the particular intimacy of Didion’s fiction, as if by a sort of osmosis the subject has taken over the narrative, as a passenger in a speeding vehicle may take over the wheel. We feel that we are reading about Didion in precisely Didion’s terms:

In considering—and not quite hitting—the real story…

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