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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An Extraordinary Life—the Life and Times of Paul Bowles

An Essay by Jane M McCabe

Paul Bowles

Lately, I’ve been in love with Paul Bowles. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s that illusive writer who lived mostly in Morocco during the 1940’s until his death in 1990, in Tangier, where he was visited by the beats (remember the beats were the precursor of the hippies) and others. His best-known novel was The Sheltering Sky, which was made into a movie, a rather poor movie however, by Bernardo Bertolucci.

His first career was composing for the scores for films and plays, but he was also a first-class writer. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up a pace.

Paul Bowles was born on January 30th, 1910, in Jamaica, New York. His father, a dentist, considered him an intrusion in his life and disliked him. I wondered how this marked Bowles’ character; perhaps it contributed to his independence of character. He was a handsome boy with blonde curls, and there was no doubt that he was extremely intelligent.

When he was old enough to escape from his family, he went to Europe, to Paris, where he was introduced to Gertrude Stein and the coterie of artists surrounding her. He studied music with Aaron Copland, who also introduced him to sex. It was Stein who suggested that he go to Morocco.

During the winter of 1936-7, when he was 27, he met and married Jane Auer, “whose red hair, pointed nose and slight limp attracted him.” Theirs was an open marriage—Jane often preferred women, and Paul was bisexual. Often they lived apart. Yet their bond was durable and lasted until her death in 1973. Jane too was writer, although her work is not as well-known as his

They were part of that enviable time when artists hobnobbed with one another and traveled to exotic places. Bowles was successful as a composer though he was inadequately compensated for his work. He returned to Tangier many times before finally settling there with excursions to Ceylon (where he bought the island of Taprobane!), Madeira and elsewhere.

When I first heard that Bowles bought an island, I assumed he must have come from a very wealthy family, but such was not the case. He was able to buy Taprobane for $6000, less than a car these days. It was lovely place with an unusual house, but it lacked electricity and its only access was to wade there. Jane wasn’t thrilled and not many friends visited.

Morocco was his first love—he felt at home there and was able to work. Jane liked Morocco too. Bowles learned Arabic and explored the country and the Algerian Sahara. He was particularly fond of Fez, the setting for The Spider’s House.

Bowles took up writing to supplement his income, but, since he was a careful observer and a natural storyteller, he excelled in this profession. His travel writings are non parel.

The Sheltering Sky is a stunning piece of work. It shook me to my core. It’s the story of young American couple who venture into the Algerian Sahara, where Port, the character patterned after himself, dies, leaving Kit in shock to wander from the compound where they were staying and attach herself to band of traveling Arab merchants. She becomes the lover of Belqassim, the leader of the expedition. When they arrived at the town where he lives, she is housed in a labrynthian house and is the object of jealousy from his other wives, so she leaves…. By the time she is found and brought back to civilization she is mad. Nothing like it has been written before or since.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s people were testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, reverting in our times back to more puritanical mores. The Bowles ceased making love shortly after they were married, yet their bond persisted undiminished. Paul always loved Jane, liked spending time with her; whenever she was in trouble, especially in her later years when her health was failing, he would always go to her as quickly as possible

Bowles was convinced that his smoking kif was essential to his creative process and was an integral part of the composition technique. He enjoyed introducing his guests to the pleasures of smoking kif.

In 1956 Jane, barely 40, suffered her first stroke. She was treated in England and given electric shock treatments, but then suffered from convulsions on their ship out of London back to Tangier.

In 1959 Bowles was notified that he had received a Rockefeller grant of $6,500 to fund a project to record Morocco’s indigenous music, so he travelled to the outlying area with this purpose in mind. Many things interfered with his obtaining his purpose—being in areas where there was neither electricity nor battery generators, heat up to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and natives who expected more than he had planned to pay them for their performances.

Bowles had a talent for traveling, and his home in Tangier was the go-to place for the invasion of beats—Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg.

Jane died on May 4, 1973, at the age of 55 in Malaga, Spain, where she had been hospitalized for the last few years of her life. After her death Paul continued to live on in Tangier, writing to friend, “There is nothing to keep me here now, save habit.” Her death took the wind out of his sails. In the years following he continued to live in a small flat in Tangier with more books and papers than he had room for.

In the fall of 1984, he had treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland and several years later an operation in Rabat to sever his sympathetic nerve his right leg. Although he kidded that when he died, he wanted to be buried in the pet cemetery outside of Tangier, his body was returned to New York where he was cremated and laid to rest next to his parents. He was not alone when he died in Tangier at 11:10 a.m. on November 18, 1999, at the age of 89 years. His friend Abdelouahaid Bouliaich and his cook Souad were by his side. He was perfectly lucid to the end. He wrote:

“If I knew I were going to die tomorrow I’d think, so soon? Still, if a man has spent his life doing what he wanted to do, he ought to be able to say goodbye without regrets.”

His was a life well lived. His ashes were interned in the Lakemont Cemetery overlooking the Seneca Lake, where the bodies or ashes of many members of his family had been interned.

When Port dies in The Sheltering Sky, Bowles writes, “A black star appears, a point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fire fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”

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