This has been another weird year, and today was no exception. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Joan Didion and what she gives me and how I rely on her for support.
In my late teens and early twenties, I lost my footing intellectually and emotionally pretty much every day, and Joan Didion got me through. She held my hand again this year. She isn’t getting any younger (in fact, she turned 79 at the beginning of the month) and I am increasingly more aware of how little time I have left to live on the same planet as her. In October, Didion received the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, but the ceremony was in Los Angeles. She lives in New York and couldn’t attend because of her health. I haven’t taken a deep breath since I read that article.
SIDE NOTE: The fact that Harrison Ford built Didion’s house in Malibu is my new favorite thing.
There’s no way to read The Year of Magical Thinking and not come away with an overwhelming sense of Didion’s fragility. I’ve been thinking a lot about The Year of Magical Thinking again. Maybe it’s because I’m currently reading a book about Joan Didion that was written in 1980, when so much was still ahead of her. I hold my breath whenever the author mentions John or Quintana, but luckily the book is mostly about Didion’s work. As a person from 2013, I know that not just tragedy lies in Didion’s future but also her best work is still years away.
Whenever I’m reading anything by Didion, I’m comparing it to what I consider Didion’s greatest accomplishment, The Year of Magical Thinking. Slouching Toward Bethlehem comes the closest to the Biblical feeling that The Year of Magical Thinking possesses. Of course, these two books are different animals and a comparison isn’t really useful. My unconscious, visceral reaction to any book is to compare how I feel when I’m reading it to how I feel when I read The Year of Magical Thinking. Like true love and lightning, though, that kind of a reaction to a book doesn’t happen twice. My relationship with The Year of Magical Thinking is singular, and I’m lucky to have even one book that affects me like that one does.
But Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a very good book. It is that most seminal of essay collections; there isn’t a better one on this planet. The second part, Personals, was my The Year of Magical Thinking before The Year of Magical Thinking was written. “On Keeping a Notebook” articulated a lot of feelings I hadn’t been able to explain.
I spent the summer rereading The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem and wondering what I was doing with my life because Didion was my age when she wrote the “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” essay. I returned to the Didion canon this summer because I wanted and still want to figure out how to write about places like Didion does. I want the midwest and northeast Indiana to be my California and the Sacramento Valley. So far all I have are casseroles.
Even though I’ve been immersed in the nonfiction lately, the novels are where I feel most comfortable and whole. The memoirs cut me open, and the novels sew me back up.
My favorite Didion novel is Run River, but I think Democracy is probably her best one. Run River is very soap opera-like, with infidelity and family issues and misplaced loyalty to dead traditions, but imagine if Didion wrote a soap opera. Imagine her way with language superimposed on to soap opera tropes, and you can see why I’m so fond of Run River. Democracy is a little bit experimental. It holds me at a distance; I can’t get inside it the way I can with Run River. Maybe someday I will, but I’m not there yet. What’s interesting about Democracy is that Joan Didion is a character in the novel. The lines between fiction and nonfiction are usually very clear for Didion, and this novel is entirely fictional. There just happens to be a character named Joan Didion and she just happens to be the narrator.
A Book of Common Prayer is my other favorite Didion novel. There are five novels, each brilliant in its own way, but these three are outstanding. A Book of Common Prayer is about a fictional Central American country so its treatment of place isn’t as immediately interesting to me right now since Didion isn’t from Central America. We can only have one home, and even though she has lived in New York for a long time, California is her home. I have a friend who is from California, and even though she may never live there again, she will always be from California. She talks about it more fondly than Didion does, but her family lives there. Most of Didion’s family is dead. Both my friend and Didion went to Berkeley (not at the same time), and I like to think of her as my personal connection to Didion. No one has been brave enough yet to point out how insane that makes me.
Speaking of A Book of Common Prayer, it is being made into a movie next year. Maybe Hollywood is also afraid Didion will die someday. Because I am a good person and the universe has seen fit to reward me for it, Allison Janney and Christina Hendricks will star in the movie. I can’t describe my joy. Right now, Joan Didion has a strange relevance. I don’t really understand where it came from, but I’m happy to ride the wave.
The truth is that what I connect to most in Didion isn’t the way she writes about the place she comes from. I wish it were. What we have in common is worrying. I worry a lot, and 2013 didn’t contain any more or less worrying than usual. I’ve always been a worrier. Maybe I’ll try to worry less in 2014, but if it means reading less Didion, no thanks.