A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, it has the metaphorical power of great fiction. While younger generations may read her as a window into the mythic 1960s or September 11, it’s impossible not to see, too, how Didion’s examination of racial bias and the Central Park Five, Reagan-era El Salvador, or the smug, violent, white-male carelessness that characterized the infamous Spur Posse in Lakewood, California, in the early 1990s anticipated the deeply troubling politics of today. Still, there’s an energy to her writing—what she might call its “shimmer”—that goes beyond a given piece’s surface story, and that sheds an awful and beautiful light on a world we half see but don’t want to see, one in which potential harm is a given and hope is a flimsy defense against dread. Didion’s ethos is a way of seeing what’s particular to the world that made her, and that ultimately reveals the writer to herself.
We are all from somewhere. It’s the artist’s job to question the values that went into the making of that somewhere. What you notice in Didion’s nonfiction is how her clarity becomes even sharper when disquiet rattles the cage of the quotidian. “I’m not interested in the middle road—maybe because everyone’s on it,” she said in a 1979 interview with the critic Michiko Kakutani. “Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me…. A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes.”
In the America that Didion, a fifth-generation Californian, grew up in—middle-class, Protestant, Republican Sacramento—the social mores were fixed, intractable. You didn’t make a show of yourself, and what you said was probably less complicated than what you thought. Postwar prosperity was a given, but how it was acquired was another story. Sacramento—Spanish for “sacrament”—was built on a swamp; the valley depended on federal handouts in order to expand, and some private citizens and corporations who got in on those transactions profited. Didion didn’t know any of that when she was a kid growing up in that hot-and-dry-in-the-summer, rainy-in-the-winter-and-early-spring Eden, complete with snakes. She was fed a steady diet of myths—the rugged individual myth, the western arrival myth.
Didion’s mother, Eduene Jerrett, had worked as a librarian before marrying Frank Didion, who supported his family as an Army Air Corps officer by selling insurance, by gambling, and finally as a developer. Eduene was the more verbal of the two, and it was she who told her daughter stories that fed her imagination. One concerned Nancy Hardin Cornwall and Josephus Adamson Cornwall, pioneer ancestors who, along with their children, split off from the Donner-Reed Party at the Humboldt Sink in Nevada to cut north through Oregon, thus escaping the death and cannibalism the rest of the party suffered. And it was Eduene who gave five-year-old Joan a notebook so she would stop complaining and write down what was troubling her.
As a member of a reasonably successful and connected clan with roots that ran deep on both sides in clannish Sacramento—Frank’s great-great-grandfather, for instance, had emigrated to Sacramento from Ohio in 1855—Didion learned early on how cut off the valley’s citizens were from the larger world. “My mother made the trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1932, to see the Olympics, and did not find reason to make it again for thirty years,” she reports in Where I Was From (2003). As a young woman she visited a rancher’s widow with her mother, she recalls in “Notes from a Native Daughter” (1965). The woman was
reminiscing (the favored conversational mode in Sacramento) about the son of some contemporaries of hers. “That Johnston boy never did amount to much,” she said. Desultorily, my mother protested: Alva Johnston, she said, had won the Pulitzer Prize, when he was working for The New York Times. Our hostess looked at us impassively. “He never amounted to anything in Sacramento,” she said.
What mattered in Sacramento was history, but only as it pertained to Sacramento or arriving in Sacramento:
It is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west. Eureka—“I Have Found It”—as the state motto has it. Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in an uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
One way children hold on to the edge of the world is by believing that they’re at the center of it. Inevitably, as one grows up, one begins to see that the distance between standing on solid ground and falling off the edge of the world is mighty narrow indeed, and that you and other people, not to mention your parents, are cracked and lonely, because we all are. Didion’s father had a troubled mind—he suffered from depression—and like any number of the forlorn male characters in Chekhov, not to mention the catch-as-catch-can, often absent husbands and fathers in Didion’s last three novels—A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)—Frank had no real ability to describe what he felt, least of all to his family. Didion wrote in Where I Was From:
There was about him a sadness so pervasive that it colored even those many moments when he seemed to be having a good time. He had many friends. He played golf, he played tennis, he played poker, he seemed to enjoy parties. Yet he could be in the middle of a party at our own house, sitting at the piano—playing “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” say, or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a bourbon highball always within reach—and the tension he transmitted would seem so great that I would have to leave, run to my room and close the door.
How did this affect her before she had the language to describe it? Did it cause the high school student who loved Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad—writers who delved, again and again, into the failure of love, into romance as a dream that curdled the soul or left one to be just a trace of one’s former self, whoever that was—to long for a different psychic reality, one that wasn’t shored up by highballs and land values and community boards? To long for a guy who basically said fuck it to what Sacramento society deemed correct and followed another path altogether? Guys like that didn’t fit in and didn’t want to fit in; they were nothing like those Didion knew at home. Such guys, Didion writes in “Insider Baseball” (1988), didn’t go to “Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied”:
They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice of the peace still in his pajamas. They got jobs at the places that had laid off their uncles…. They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, “the process.”
The traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained. Again and again throughout her career, Didion has struggled with the idea, not to mention the reality, of what makes the status quo, what constitutes tradition, and how the visiting “bad boy” or unforeseen event disrupts the world as people like the Didions, or the people they associated with in Sacramento, knew it.
Didion was also drawn to more traditional writers who gave off a similar energy on the page, guys who reported on their extreme states of consciousness in story after story littered with sex and death and what goes wrong when the status quo is undone by forces it can’t control. Didion in high school, hanging out with guys who didn’t bother with college, Didion observing Frank at the piano or watching John Wayne onscreen as a kid, selling sexuality—all of this is fascinating in part because it’s rare: a woman looking at men and not looking away. Didion reversed the standard male-female gaze, while developing the Didion gaze.
In 1952 the burgeoning writer was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in English. Berkeley was not her first choice. She had applied to Stanford but not gotten in, a disappointment she writes about in “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice” (1968). In it, Didion again makes a number of points that readers might learn from today, including the fact that your children are not you, and that being a teenager is tough enough without following someone else’s script. By the time she got to Berkeley, it’s safe to assume she wasn’t following anyone else’s script, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t want to learn the lines she needed to know in order to get by. The Bay Area where Didion landed in the early 1950s was culturally speaking mostly “nowhere,” to use the parlance of the time. While the poet Robert Duncan’s Six Gallery in San Francisco was significant, and the Bay Area Figurative Movement was just picking up steam, Abstract Expressionism—the combustive, ragged, and elegant style that caused the art world to turn its attention away from Europe to America—blossomed in New York, not Marin County. Walter and Louise Arensberg, the biggest art collectors of the day, lived in Los Angeles, as did their protégé Walter Hopps, who opened his legendary Ferus Gallery there in 1957.
At Berkeley, Didion discovered she didn’t know how to think, at least as thinking was defined at the university. In her 1975 lecture “Why I Write,” she said:
During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.
In short I tried to think…. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill…. You might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol…but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.
Perhaps Didion couldn’t speak Hegelian—or Hegel didn’t speak to her—because even then she was already engaged in learning how to speak Californian. Every writer is a regionalist. In a 1979 review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, a book about the Utah native and murderer Gary Gilmore, Didion describes what makes western speech so difficult to capture. How do you make a language out of emptiness, “that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism not only antithetical to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting”? Dread can stymie speech, certainly, but it can also make you wary of the idea of communicating anything at all. What’s the point if what you feel can’t be spoken? Life in Sacramento taught Didion that.
And yet, how could one’s Americanness measure up to all those linguistic theorists? How did we get here? What are we doing here? Why do we stay? (We are all linguistic theorists if we deal with language, but try telling that to a seventeen-year-old overachiever.) How could California, as subject and reality, measure up to the Europe that Hemingway, for instance, mined for his fiction? Was Europe a “thing” she had to consider if she was going to write her world? Or would her Americanness—her Didionness—be enough? Those are questions she answered for herself when she moved to New York after college to work at Vogue. In New York, the girl who had grown up near and in rivers found herself walking to the East River because she missed what she knew, and the only way to capture it was by writing; her first novel, Run, River (1963), is, as much as anything, an act of memory and memorialization.
But we are getting ahead of her story, which she tells best of all. I think it’s safe to say that Didion, a carver of words in the granite of the specific, might have been less than inspired by the cold war writing that was popular on both coasts when she was a college student; in any case, it’s hard to imagine her as a Dharma bum—too much posturing there. What Didion sought was naturalness of expression as controlled by a true understanding of one’s craft, the better to describe the ineffable, the uncanny in the everyday. But how would she achieve that? In 1954, when she was nineteen, Didion was accepted into Mark Schorer’s English 106A, an experience she describes in her 1978 reminiscence “Telling Stories.” The class, she says, was
a kind of “writer’s workshop” which met for discussion three hours a week and required that each student produce, over the course of the semester, at least five short stories. No auditors were allowed…. English 106A was widely regarded in the fall of 1954 as a kind of sacramental experience, an initiation into the grave world of real writers, and I remember each meeting of this class as an occasion of acute excitement, and dread.
Didion’s dread was based in part on the feeling that she hadn’t experienced enough to complete five short stories. And it was dread, too, that made her want to disappear in class, which, incidentally, she never missed. “I ransacked my closet for clothes in which I might appear invisible in class,” she remembered. “And came up with only a dirty raincoat. I sat in this raincoat and I listened to other people’s stories read aloud and I despaired of ever knowing what they knew.”
In Schorer’s class, the young writer wanted to disappear because her writing felt unrealized, vacant. But she showed up, and listened, and stayed. Because writing took commitment, which is not greater than but equal to fear and dread. That each lives with the other, seemingly forever—“The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print,” says Didion in “Last Words,” her 1998 essay about Hemingway—is part and parcel of the writing life. Writers manage, somehow, to survive that humiliation. And having survived it, they meet it again—by writing.
This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of early writings by Joan Didion, to be published by Knopf in January 2021. Copyright © 2020 by Hilton Als.
December 17, 2020
A Well-Ventilated Conscience
The Oldest Forest