Joan Didion’s Style

Martin Amis

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
    Weidenfeld, 223 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77702 5

Joan Didion is the poet of the Great Californian Emptiness. She sings of a land where it is easier to Dial-A-Devotion than to buy a book, where the freeway sniper feels ‘real bad’ about picking off a family of five, where kids in High Kindergarten are given LSD and peyote by their parents, where young hustlers get lethally carried away while rolling elderly film-stars, where six-foot-two drag queens shop for fishnet bikinis, where a 26-year-old woman can consign her five-year-old daughter to the centre divider of Interstate 5: when her fingers were prised loose from the fence 12 hours later, the child pointed out that she had run after the car containing her family for ‘a long time’.

All of us are excited by what we most deplore – ‘especially’, as Miss Didion says in another context, ‘if we are writers’. Miss Didion used to be excited by human stupidity and viciousness. Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968), her previous collection of journalism and essays, begins with a piece about a murder in the San Bernadino Valley – Mormon country. On 7 October 1964, Lucille Miller took her depressive and generally below-par husband, Cork, out for a moonlight drive in their Volkswagen. After a visit to a nearby supermarket, Mrs Miller stopped the car in the middle of the road, poured a can of petrol over her husband, set fire to him, and then attempted to propel the VW over a four-foot drop. As it happened, the car got stuck on the ledge; Mrs Miller seemed to have a change of heart at this point, and spent the next 75 minutes trying to save her husband by poking at him with a stick (‘I just thought if I had a stick, I’d push him out’); but by now, anyway, Cork was ‘just black’. The trial was surprisingly protracted, considering that the tirelessly hysterical Mrs Miller had a boyfriend and $120,000 coming to her in the event of Cork’s accidental death. ‘It wasn’t a very interesting murder as murders go,’ Miss Didion quotes the DA as saying ‘laconically’, intending a gentle laugh on him. Actually the DA was right. It wasn’t a very interesting murder. But it was certainly very stupid and vicious, and Miss Didion used to be excited by that kind of thing.

She isn’t any more. No longer can Miss Didion regard the neurotic waywardness and vulgar infamies of California as simply ‘good material’. The White Album deals with the late Sixties and early Seventies. During these menacing years Miss Didion lived with her husband and daughter in a large house in Hollywood, at the heart of what a friend described as a ‘senseless-killing neighborhood’. Across the street, the one-time Japanese Consulate had become a group-therapy squat for unrelated adults. Scientologists used to pop by and explain to Miss Didion about E-meters and how to become a Clear. High-minded narcotic dealers would call her on the telephone (‘what we’re talking about, basically, is applying the Zen philosophy to money and business, dig?’). Pentecostalist Brother Theobold informed her that there were bound to be more earthquakes these days, what with the end of time being just round the corner. One night a baby-sitter remarked that she saw death in Miss Didion’s aura; in response, Miss Didion slept downstairs on the sofa, with the windows open. Then it happened – not to Joan Didion, but to Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Boytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, and Sharon Tate:

On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.

And, at a stroke, the Sixties ended – ‘the paranoia was fulfilled.’

Miss Didion reached her own breaking-point almost exactly a year before Charles Manson reached his. Alerted by an attack of nausea and vertigo (and such an attack ‘does not now seem to [her] an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968’), Miss Didion enrolled as a private outpatient of the psychiatric clinic at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, where she underwent the Rorschach Test, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index. Miss Didion quotes at italicised length from the ensuing psychiatric report: ‘a personality in process of deterioration … regressive, libidinal preoccupations … fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic … feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure …’ Following a series of periodic visual disturbances, she then submits to three electro-encephalograms, two sets of skull and neck X-rays, one five-hour glucose-tolerance test, two electromyelograms, a variety of chemical tests and consultations with two ophthalmologists, one internist and three neurologists. Damage to the central nervous system is diagnosed and given a nasty name by the sinister doctors. ‘The startling fact was this,’ writes Miss Didion: ‘my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind.’ At that moment she had a sharp apprehension ‘of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife.’ Charles Manson had come calling, but under the name of Multiple Sclerosis. ‘Lead a simple life,’ the neurologist concluded: ‘Not that it makes any difference we know about.’

In her relatively self-effacing preface to Slouching towards Bethlehem Miss Didion admitted: ‘whatever I write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.’ Ten years on, the emphasis has changed; you might even say, after 200 pages of these high-profile musings, that whatever Miss Didion feels reflects how she writes. ‘Gratuitous’ hardly comes into it any more – and this doesn’t apply only to the essays specifically addressed to her migraines, marital problems, book-promotion activities, and so on. ‘I am talking here about being a child of my time,’ begins one essay. ‘I had better tell you where I am, and why,’ begins another. Having told us where she is and why (Honolulu, to save her marriage), Miss Didion proceeds: ‘I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who …’

Only someone fairly assured about certain of her bearings would presume to address her readers in this (in fact) markedly high-handed style. The style bespeaks celebrity, a concerned and captive following; it is inconceivable, for instance, that any beginner would risk such a take-me-or-leave-me tone. It occurs to you that Miss Didion’s reasons for disliking Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and for attacking it at length in the New York Review, are perhaps largely defensive in origin. What is objectionable about Manhattan is not that it is knowing, cute, ‘in’, as Miss Didion claimed. What is objectionable about Manhattan, and Annie Hall, is that Woody Allen is publicly analysing a past love affair, with his past lover, on screen (Woody Allen used to be with Diane Keaton, as is well-known; as is also well-known, Diane is now with Warren Beatty, or was at the time of writing). Such self-advertisement feels cheap and, for all its coy alienations, looks thick-skinned. Miss Didion would dismiss the comparison as footling when compared to the inescapability of her new-found emotional rawness. She feels that she is responding accurately to some extremity in the observed life – in the great and desperate human action she reads about in the newspapers, listens to on the radio, and fragmentarily witnesses. Yet it remains true that writing, unlike living, is artificial, disinterested: it is not just another facet of reality, however clamorous and incorrigible that reality may sometimes feel.

Miss Didion, however, has come out. She stands revealed, in The White Album, as a human being who has managed to gouge another book out of herself, rather than as a writer who gets her living done on the side, or between the lines. The result is a volatile, occasionally brilliant, distinctly female contribution to the new New Journalism, diffident and imperious by turns, intimate yet categorical, self-effacingly listless and at the same time often subtly self-serving. She can still find her own perfect pitch for long stretches, and she has an almost embarrassingly sharp ear and unblinking eye for the Californian inanity. Seemingly obedient, though, to the verdicts of her psychiatric report, Miss Didion writes about everything with the same doom-conscious yet faintly abstract intensity of interest, whether remarking on the dress sense of one of Manson’s henchwomen, or indulging her curious obsession with Californian waterworks in these pieces, Miss Didion’s writing does not ‘reflect’ her moods so much as dramatise them. ‘How she feels’ has become, for the time being, how it is.

The effect on her style is everywhere apparent. In the middle of a piece about the design of shopping-centres, Miss Didion abruptly announces: ‘If I had a center I would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.’ That sentence could have been written by Richard Brautigan; it is a peculiarly Californian style, a schlepping style. Bouts of wooziness affect the judgment too. After a wearily lucid analysis of the Women’s Movement and a precise appraisal of Doris Lessing, Miss Didion moves on to a bizarre hymn to Georgia O’Keeffe, the veteran American painter. Miss Didion makes the mistake, at the outset, of taking along her seven-year-old daughter to see a Chicago retrospective of the painter’s work:

One of the vast O’Keeffe ‘Sky Above Clouds’ canvasses floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. ‘Who drew it,’ she whispered after a while. I told her. ‘I need to talk to her,’ she said finally.

  My daughter was making, that day in Chicago, an entirely unconscious but quite basic assumption about people and the work they do. She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker … that every choice one made alone … betrayed one’s character. Style is character.

It is easy to see here how quickly sentimentality proceeds to nonsense. The extent to which style isn’t character can be gauged by (for example) reading a literary biography, or by trying to imagine a genuinely fruitful discussion between Georgia O’Keeffe and Miss Didion’s seven-year-old daughter: a scene of painful mawkishness springs unavoidably to mind. When the child whispered, ‘I need to talk to her,’ Miss Didion should have whispered back, ‘Quiet, I’m working,’ and got on with her job. As it is, Miss Didion gives us a tremulous pep-talk on O’Keeffe’s career, fondly stressing the ‘crustiness’ and ‘pepperiness’ of ‘this hard woman’, ‘this angelic rattlesnake’. She sums up:

In Texas there was only the horizon she craved. In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘… My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot them. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.

A tribute to ‘hardness’, from one tough performer to another, becomes a husky gasp of shared prostration.

‘Style is character.’ Or, as Miss Didion puts it: Style is character. If style were character, everyone would write as self-revealingly as Miss Didion. Not everyone does. Miss Didion’s style relishes emphasis, repetition, re-emphasis. Her style likes looking at the same things from different angles. Her style likes starting and finishing successive sentences with identical phrases. Take these two little strophes, separated by a hundred-odd pages in the present book:

In the years after World War I my mother had put pennies for Grace [Episcopal Cathedral] in her mite box but Grace would never be finished. In the years after World War II I would put pennies for Grace in my mite box but Grace would never be finished

And:

In 1973 the five pillboxes on Makapuu Head had seemed to James Jones exactly as he had left them in 1942. In 1973 the Royal Hawaiian Hotel had seemed to James Jones less formidably rich than he had left it in 1942 …

Both passages evoke the passing of time with the same reflexive cross-hatching. Equally, you know when to ready yourself for some uplift, because each sentence – like the one about Miss Didion’s shopping-centre – contains more ‘and’s’ than a song by Leonard Cohen: ‘I thought about barrack rats and I thought about Prewitt and Maggio and I thought about Army hatred and it seemed to me that night in Honolulu … ’ That night in Honolulu, that day in Chicago. It is a style that has become set in its own modulations, proclaiming its individuality by means of a few recurrent quirks and lilts. In other words, it has become mannered.

It could be argued that the same thing happened to Miss Didion’s fiction. Run, River (1963) is an exemplarily solid first novel, mildly ambitious in construction and restrained in delivery and scope – contentedly minor, above all. It is set in rural California during and after the Second War, and examines familial and community power-balances in relaxed, elegant, clichéless prose. Miss Didion’s somewhat top-heavy interest in madness and stupefaction – the vanished knack of ‘making things matter’ – puts in an early appearance here, but it is at least placed against a background where not everything is mad and stupefied. The trouble starts with Play it as it lays (1970). This is when the Californian emptiness arrives and Miss Didion attempts to evolve a style, or a manner, to answer to it. Here come divorces, breakdowns, suicide bids, spliced-up paragraphs, 40-word chapters, and italicised wedges of prose that used to be called ‘fractured’. The ‘bad’ characters are movie people who drink and take drugs to excess, sleep with one another a lot, and don’t go crazy. The ‘good’ characters are movie people who drink and take drugs to excess, sleep with one another a lot, and do go crazy. The bad characters are shallow pragmatists. The good characters are (between ourselves) shallow nihilists. We are meant to think that BZ, the ruefully degenerate producer, is acting with perversely heroic decorum when he kills himself with vodka and Seconal at the end of the book (‘Don’t start faking me now … Take my hand’). And we are meant to think that Marie, the ruefully degenerate actress, is actually trumping BZ in the nihilism stakes by the shrewd expedient of not killing herself. The book closes:

I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.
Why, BZ would say.
Why not, I say.

Her italics.

The area occupied by A Book of Common Prayer (1977) might be called the aftermath of breakdown. Told by one woman about another, the novel’s catalogue of lost husbands, lost children and lost lucidity – its endless ‘revisions and erasures’ – is glimpsed through a mesh of distortion and dislocation. From the outset, the prose tangles with a good deal of counterpoint, elision and italicisation, and gets more hectic as the novel proceeds. Towards the end, such is the indirection on display, Miss Didion seems incapable of starting a new subordinate clause without splintering off into a new paragraph.

In fact she had.
Told Leonard what she was going to do.
She was going to stay.
Not ‘stay’ precisely.
‘Not leave’ is more like it.

and

I am told, and so she said.
I heard later.
According to her passport. It was reported.
Apparently.

are examples. I find this kind of writing as resonant as a pop-gun. The most poetic thing about Miss Didion’s prose in this novel is that it doesn’t go all the way across the page.

However much she would resist the idea, Miss Didion’s talent is primarily discursive in tendency. As is the case with Gore Vidal, the essays are far more interesting than the fiction. The novels get taken up, with the enthusiasm, the unanimity, the relief which American critics and readers often show when they discover a new and distinctly OK writer. Miss Didion is already being called ‘major’, a judgment that some might think premature, to say the least: but she is far more rewarding than many writers similarly saluted. In particular, the candour of her femaleness is highly arresting and original. She doesn’t try for the virile virtues of robustness and infallibility; she tries to find a female way of being serious. Nevertheless, there are hollow places in even her best writing, a thinness, a sense of things missing.

There are two main things that aren’t there. The first is a social dimension. At no point in The White Album does Miss Didion think about the sort of people she would never normally have cause to come across: the ‘cunning Okie’ who doesn’t actually commit the crime and hit the headlines, the quietly crazy mother who never gets round to leaving her daughter on the centre divider of Interstate 5, the male-prostitute flop who will never have the chance to roll and murder a Ramon Novarro and win a place in Miss Didion’s clippings file. Lucille Miller was alive and ill and living in San Bernadino Valley long before she tried to burn her husband to death. Miss Didion sensed this, in Slouching towards Bethlehem, and had the energy to follow it up: but in The White Album her imaginative withdrawal seems pretty well complete. It must be easier to get like this in California than anywhere else on earth. Even the black revolutionaries Miss Didion goes to see chat about their BUPA schemes and the royalties on their memoirs. It is interesting, though, that Miss Didion fails to identify a strong element in the ‘motives’ behind the Manson killings: the revenge of the insignificant on the affluent. What frightened Miss Didion’s friends was the idea that wealth and celebrity might be considered sufficient provocation to murder. But Miss Didion never looks at things from this point of view. It is a pity. If you are rich and neurotic it is salutary in all kinds of ways to think hard about people who are poor and neurotic: i.e. people who have more to be neurotic about. If you don’t, and especially if you are a writer, then it is not merely therapy you miss out on.

The other main thing that isn’t there is any kind of literary spaciousness or solidity. Miss Didion has excellent sport with the culturelessness of her fellow Californians: ‘As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway.’ Or again, writing about Hollywood: ‘A book or a story is a “property” only until the deal; after that it is “the basic material”, as in “I haven’t read the basic material on Gatsby.” ’ Miss Didion has read the basic material on Gatsby; she has even read The Last Tycoon. But what else has she read, and how recently? A few texts from her Berkeley days like Madame Bovary and Heart of Darkness get a mention. Lionel Trilling gets two. And while holidaying in Colombia she takes the opportunity to quote from One Hundred Years of Solitude (‘by the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’) and Robert Lowell’s ‘Caracas’. Yet at no point does Miss Didion give a sense of being someone who uses literature as a constant model or ideal, something shored up against the randomness and babble that is fundamental to her distress. When Miss Didion herself attempts an erudite modulation we tend to get phrases like ‘there would ever be world enough and time’ or ‘the improvement of marriages would not a revolution make’ or ‘all the ignorant armies jostling in the night’ – which might be gems from a creative-writing correspondence course.

‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ is, of course, a literary reference itself. As Miss Didion dramatically points out in her Preface: ‘This book is called Slouching towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.’ The whole of ‘The Second Coming’ is indeed printed a few pages back, along with a deflationary extract from the sayings of Miss Peggy Lee (‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant’). The title essay duly begins: ‘The centre wasn’t holding.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her with the necessary force that ‘The Second Coming’ was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart. The continuity such an impression ignores is a literary continuity. It routinely assimilates and domesticates more pressing burdens than Miss Didion’s particular share of vivid, ephemeral terrors.