The Pink Hotel

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
    Flamingo, 227 pp, £15.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 00 224080 7

I began this feuilleton in a hotel room, the Hyatt Regency in Houston, Texas: a Didionesque locale. (Caryl Phillips once told me that he liked to write his books in faraway hotel rooms. I admire that. It brings to mind Janet Flanner at the Ritz and James Schuyler at the Chelsea.) Joan Didion has often noted transiency’s allure, a writer’s necessary alienation from fixed address. My favourite Didion passage of all time, from The White Album, typifies what I will call ‘hotel prose’:

TO PACK AND WEAR:

  2 skirts

  2 jerseys or leotards

  1 pullover sweater

  2 pair shoes

  stockings

  bra

  nightgown, robe, slippers

  cigarettes

  bourbon

  bag with:

    shampoo

    toothbrush and paste

    Basis soap

    razor,deodorant

    aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax

    face cream, powder, baby oil

TO CARRY:

  mohair throw

  typewriter

  2 legal pads and pens

  files

  house key

  This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same hotel room.

Didion’s emotional signature is lack of affect – indifference. Indifference characterises hotel prose, which never indulges the pathetic fallacy. (The wallpaper does not embody my melancholy.) Hotel prose captures life after the stiff, etherising drink has been downed.

Here is the critic Bruce Hainley, writing in December 1996’s Artforum, on Didion and hotels:

My interest in [Didion’s heroine] and her hotel life, a state of mind, has little to do with some misguided romantic notion of living such a life myself. But I find sense and a kind of solace in Didion’s daring to show that the ‘game’, the ‘plot’, the ‘set-up’, the ‘whatever you want to call it’ operates around a woman’s transit from one hotel to another, from the Intercon to the Surfrider to the Aero Sands Beach Resort.

A piece of hotel prose, also from The White Album, shows Didion at her indifferent best:

1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, aged three. She is blond and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected. In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.

A hotel may be luxurious; it may also be impoverished. Didion’s characters stay in luxury hotels but also middle-of-the-road establishments. No safe haven, a hotel is a cesspool that sucks the guest down into anonymity. In a hotel, social class vacillates. Is the guest upwardly or downwardly mobile? What punishments will the concierge exact? Despite privilege, a hotel resident may choose not to lift herself from dolour, or she may check into the wrong hotel, for the wrong reasons.

In Didion’s new novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, a woman with plenty of ‘options’ checks into the wrong hotel. At her disposal she has

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