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ESSAY

Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion

Edited by Steffie Nelson

Rare Bird Books | 2020

An Essay by Michael Moreau

Joan Didion and a Lifetime of Magical Writing

Joan Didion

I grew up a Navy brat and only child, and my family roamed the country and much of California, at one point moving from Ventura where my father was stationed at Pt. Mugu and to Hickam Field in Hawaii and then back again to California.  This was in the mid-1950s. In Honolulu, until we found more permanent housing, we lived for a few weeks in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, whose sprawling veranda offered protection from tropical storms and flying coconuts and was by then a decrepit Victorian monument to the days before the Howlies, who wrangled the islands from the natives in the late 1800s.

I mention this because Hawaii always held a place in the imaginations of Californians that was more personal than for the Easterners, for whom it was a just a sultry escape from punishing winters.

For Californians, as Joan Didion says in the “Letter from Paradise” essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Hawaii was “The Islands,” by which was mostly meant Oahu, before Maui became the go-to destination. Hawaii loomed large in the California ethos, not least for its blasting us into the second world war. And there were signs of its influence everywhere. The Golden State became an outpost for surfing, tiki culture—there were restaurants with names like The Luau, The Islander, Tikis, where could be heard knockoffs of the treacly music of Don Ho and his tiny bubbles.

But our family was among few Californians who had actually lived in The Islands and who came home wearing Hawaiian shirts and placed brightly colored, feathered gourd rattles on our coffee table. After returning stateside my father could never again touch pineapples because he had so overindulged during our two-year sojourn.

In the New York Review of Books (May 26, 2016) Didion writes: “The Royal Hawaiian had a glamour for California children who grew up as I did. Little girls in Sacramento were bought raffia grass skirts by returning godmothers. They were taught ‘Aloha Oe’ at Girl Scout meetings, and to believe that their clumsiness would be resolve via the mastery of the hula.” This was the Hawaiian influence we also knew firsthand.

Didion has influenced legions of younger writers and 25 of them are represented in the recently published Slouching Toward Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light.  As the title suggests, the contributors are Los Angeles-based writers, several of whom apparently moved from distant parts of the country to the Southland because of Didion’s writing

The acute depiction of place and specifically the evocation of the power of land is among Joan Didion’s manifold strengths as a writer.

Two of Didion’s main themes are the power of place and how it can change beyond recognition and the terrible inevitability of personal loss. “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears,” she writes in “Notes from a Native Daughter.”

In 2003 Didion had just published Where I Was From, an elegy to California and the Sacramento Valley she had known as a child, when her husband of 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack in their New York City apartment. A year later she would publish her book of grieving The Year of Magical Thinking, and the following year the couple’s only child, Quintana Roo, would die at the age of 39. Blue Nights would reflect on that loss.

In Where I Was From she writes of returning to Sacramento in 2001 for her mother’s funeral and flying over the checkered plains of the Midwest then over the Sierra Nevada, the range her ancestors had crossed with the infamous Donner Party more than a century before, and then into the Sacramento Valley, where her family had set down roots that would last eight generations. She thought about the contradictions embodied in California life, many of them manifested in her mother’s attitudes. There was the individualism, a distrust of the federal government, contrasted by the benefits from government programs that allowed her family use of facilities at a nearby Air Force base—a perk of her father’s service in World War II—and the generous federal land grants of the mid-19th Century that left the family with hundreds of acres of land in and near Sacramento.

But she observes that when parents die the chief concern is with “me.” Even at her age, Didion (then nearly 70) she says thoughts turned to “who will look out for me now; who will remember me as I was; who will know what happens to me now; where will I be from.” [her italics]

The prodigiously prolific Didion has moved dexterously through nonfiction, starting in her early 20s as a writer for Vogue and Life; then the novels Run River, Play it as it Lays, The Book of Common Prayer; screenplays with her husband Dunne, Play it as it Lays, The Panic in Needle Park, True Confessions; the memoirs Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking; and the short non-fiction pieces that helped define the new journalism—many of the best of which can be found in the collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” Didion famously wrote in a New York Times piece, “Why I Write,” in 1976. And I think it is because we trust her remarkable powers of observation and the way her mind works that we find her work so valuable.

Didion is no whiner. We all love, and we all tend to lose what we love—often losing what we treasure most in life. This is why her books resonate the way they do. This is why her take on the ’60s in her most famous books of essays bear the ring of truth. She was there, and she had no particular ax to grind. We trust her reporting because we trust her voice and the clarity of her vision.

Editor Steffie Nelson in her introduction says her project began with a literary event she organized with Didion “as a touchstone.”  Who else wrote about California with a body of work that “encompasses everything from the Donner Party to The Doors”? As she talked to a variety of writers, she began to realize “that every writer in Los Angeles probably had something to say about Joan Didion.”

And so the idea for the book took root.

I confess that I hadn’t heard of most of the writers in this anthology, and I found the quality of the writing to be uneven, although the best of it offers a new way to look at Didion with a probity that Didion herself would probably admire. Perhaps an irony in this collection is that while many of the writers were drawn to L.A. by reading Didion—and some refer to her piece “Goodbye to All That” (which can be found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem) in which she says farewell to New York in the mid-1970s and returns to L.A., but Didion and Dunne went back to New York ten years later and she has remained there ever since.

Among the writers in the book, Jori Finkel writes about the influence of Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and describes her “cinematic or photographic quality, like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment.” She practices the fly on the wall method of reporting—a self-described shy person, interviewing is not something she has ever relished. But she always showed up, believing that her shyness made her inconspicuous. Finkel retells Didion’s story about a blonde she observed in a Pucci bathing suit at the Beverly Hills Hotel where she “arches one foot and dips into the pool.” Years later she sees the same woman coming out of Saks in New York looking haggard in her mink coat: “In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me.”

In “At This Precise Intersection of Time and Space: A Response to Joan Didion’s ‘At the Dam,’” a response to “At the Dam” from The White Album, Margaret Wappler writes of leaving her life in the Midwest behind with the dream of becoming an artist in L.A.  It is really her traveling companion who wants to see the dam. But she would later write of it: “It rose out of nothing like a religious monument. An altar to human ingenuity and the belief that it will always save us, from nature, from an indifferent God. The missionary fever of the dam’s construction, which had cost ninety-six men their lives, not to mention one dog that was crushed by a truck.”

Didion had written of “the sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced. ‘They died to make the desert bloom,’ reads a plaque dedicated to the 96 men who died building this first of the great high dams.”  But she adds the twist to it: “[I realized] what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.”

Catherine Wigley in “That Was a Very Pretty Image: On the Joan Didion Fragility Myth” says that Didion pretty much established that “a writer could acknowledge femininity and vulnerability while still being incisively competent.” Wagley also points out, as have many others, that in the pages of the New York Review, Didion was one of the first reporters to cast doubt on the guilt of the young men who were convicted as the Central Park Five.

While Donald Trump was running full-page newspaper ads calling for the men to be executed even before they were tried, Wagley writes, “she found in the storytelling by officials and media about the attack on the Central Park Joggers a sinister, romantically capitalist notion of New York, one into which a young female jogger who works on Wall Street fits but five teenagers who do not…. The premise, and the desire for New York City be a haven for only a certain brand of attractive, educated white person, led in part to the bungled case that Didion condemned twelve years before the exoneration of the Central Park Five.”

Even long before the terrible losses in her life, critics talked about a certain melancholia that colors Didion’s work. Joshua Wolf Shenk points to this in “The Opposite of Cool” in which he quotes from her in a 1972 KPFK radio interview on the publication of her novel Play It as It Lays. The character Maria, she said “is coming to terms with the meaningless of experience.”

This, Shenk writes, “is her leitmotif. If I hadn’t come to live in this city, I would be less pained about what she said next. ‘And that’s what everybody who lives in Los Angeles has to come to terms with because none of it seems to mean anything.’” Because, you see, Shenk and most of the other writers in the book have come to Los Angeles to find clarity in their lives. But Didion, who worked in the flim-flam world of Hollywood had ample opportunity to look behind the curtain.

What Shenk also I think rightly observes is Didion’s “preoccupation with place, with site, with a repetition—bordering on perseveration—of specific locales.”

I’m not so sure I agree with his parenthetical observation.  In “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem the evocation of San Bernardino, California, a place “haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves,” where October “is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

The town is almost a character in the story. Shenk, I’m afraid, argues against one of Didion’s greatest strengths.

On a Didion waited for hours in the windowless recording studio on Sunset with the members of The Doors for their leader Jim Morrison to show up, a discussion ensued over whether a line of poetry was from Tennyson or Blake. “Too bad Jim isn’t here,” Ray Manzarek said

He would know. (Morrison had a degree in English from Florida State University.) Morrison finally showed up, but the conversation didn’t pick up with Blake. By now Didion, as was her method, had faded into the background. What she noticed about Morrison was his black vinyl pants. When after the passage of some time Morrison spoke to Ray Manzarek, the cofounder and keyboardist for the group, Didion says, “he spoke in almost a whisper, as if he were wresting the words from behind some disabling aphasia.”

The discussion was about whether they should spend the night in West Covina where they had a gig or return to Hollywood.  Morrison, who was playing with matches, held a lit one to the fly of his combustible pants. “There was a sense,” Didion says “that no one was going to leave the room, ever.”

One of the more intriguing essays in this volume is “Where I Am From,” in which Michelle Chihara plays on the title of Didion’s Where I Was From and wonders why she had placed the verb so conspicuously in the past tense. It is a book in which Chihara, like me, finds herself going back to, time and again. In fact, she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the book. She makes much of the fact that Didion so often couches statements in the passive voice, depleting them, Chihara says, of a sense of agency.

The book explores much of California history and Didion’s family’s place in that history going back eight generations. She sardonically mentions land heiresses like Joan Irvine and Jane Hollister Wheelwright, who oversaw the carving up selling—or in Irvine’s case creating a city—of inherited land empires in the mid-20th Century. Yet, in writing about her Sacramento roots she alludes only tangentially to what happened to the vast acreage that the Didions once owned, while she quite personally, in “On Going Home,” recalls the family home and her husband’s discomfort at its strangeness, and her brother James’s referring to him not by name but as Joan’s husband.

While Didion seems to wax nostalgic, or as nostalgic as an unsentimental writer can be, about the Sacramento Valley she grew up in, she tosses off observations like “and then came MacDonald’s and Walmart” without revealing much about how they came to be. Chihara went to the public records to find out how property had changed hands in late-20th Century Sacramento County. She made some interesting discoveries. For instance, Didion’s brother James turns out to be a major California Real Estate investor (and incidentally was a key lobbyist in Sacramento for the National Real Estate Committee during the successful drive to deregulate mortgage underwriting. Remember the 2007-8 crisis?) He handled the family’s real estate after their father died, and when their mother passed Joan essentially took her portion of the inheritance and retreated to New York. Chihara says she “wanted Didion to cop to her role in the process.” But in Didion’s telling, she “segues from any discussion of her agency, as she and her brother went ahead and subdivided the ranch.”

But Didion leaves that all behind. She says in the book that that history, after all, was not her adopted daughter Quintana Roo’s history. She didn’t have to be burdened by it. In that lovely ending to “On Going Home” Didion writes to the daughter who is just one year old at the time “[I] would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that. I give her a xylophone and a sundress from Madeira and promise to tell her a funny story.”

Chihara, in artful homage to Didion, writes that she was right in other ways: “We need rituals to help us remember who and what we are. I will not deed my Japanese Jewish Welsh American girls growing up in Los Angeles any acreage to speak of. So, what do I have to offer them? Crystal necklaces. The collected works of Joan Didion. The names of California wildflowers. A promise to stay with our shared ghosts.”

This book is a useful reminder of what makes Joan Didion so valuable to us.

— Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review



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