We take a behind-the-curtain peek at the work of Joan Didion via a new two-part notebook from the Californian author
An engaging insight into the life of Joan Didion
“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay In the Islands. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
California belongs to Didion herself. As Martin Amis put it, she is “the poet of the Great Californian Emptiness”.
It is the subject she returns to over and over in her work, most memorably in 2003’s Where I Was From – which combined first-person memoir with a history of the state – the origins of which, we now learn, are to be found in notes she made three decades earlier, in 1976, while reporting on the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone.
Her latest book, South and West: From a Notebook consists not so much of previously unpublished work, but rather notes taken in preparation for work that then went unwritten.
“This is not about Patricia Hearst,” she writes in California Notes. “It is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill.”
The piece as originally envisaged was never completed, but it set her to “examining my thoughts about California”. “I am trying to place myself in history,” she wrote. Notes on California is the significantly shorter of the two parts that constitute South and West. The majority of the volume belongs to Notes on the South, taken during a month-long road-trip with her husband, John Dunne, in 1970.
“In the South,” she writes in California Notes, “they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.”
This “they” versus “us” is everything. As many have pointed out before, the South is unlike any other part of the United States, and remains resiliently unknowable, sometimes even to its own people. Didion battles with this. She is equal parts intoxicated and confused: “I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic centre. I did not much want to talk about this.”
It is intriguing to read such uncertainty – albeit written with the same pin-point-precise prose as ever; I have never read “notebooks” so near perfectly formed – from a writer who has defined how we think about a state that, although only a short flight away, could be another world entirely.
Didion and Dunne set out from New Orleans, where “the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology”.
They drive into Mississippi, where she buys “a cheap beach towel printed with the Confederate flag”, on through run-down Gulf Coast resorts where everything has gone “to seed” – “walls stain, windows rust. Curtains mildew. Wood warps. Air conditioners cease to function” – and into Alabama.
Though, as Nathaniel Rich notes in his introduction to the volume, “the road-trip aspect is barely commented upon; instead we have the surreal image of Didion swimming her way across the Gulf South through its motel pools”.
This Southern-take on John Cheever’s evocative short story The Swimmer is just as unnerving as the original, perhaps even more so since the elegant, landscaped garden pools of New England’s prosperous upper middle classes have been replaced with grotty, run-down, algae-filled concrete and plastic tubs full of water that “smells of fish”.
Heat, languor, danger: all the trademarks of Southern Gothic are here. Also a “vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style” permeates already leaden air. It is not the comprehensive portrait of the South one might wish for, but in this incarnation, it was never meant to be. In many ways, it is all the more fascinating to see what evaded one of the America’s most famous 20th-century chroniclers.