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 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
toothbrush and paste
aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax
face cream, powder, baby oil
2 legal pads and pens
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
entire archipelagos of neutral havens where an American woman of a certain appearance could have got off the plane and checked into a promising resort hotel (a promising resort hotel would be defined as one in which there were no Special Forces in the lobby, no armoured unmarked vans at the main entrance) and ordered a cold drink and dialled a familiar number in Century City or Malibu and let Wynn Janklow and the concierge work out the logistics of re-entry into her previous life.
Just think about it: this was not a woman who on the evidence had ever lacked the resources to just get on a plane and leave.
So why hadn’t she.
Like Gertrude Stein, her fellow Californian, Didion puts a period where a question mark belongs, and thus turns ordinary speech into dour, frightening pronouncement, heavy with portent.
What is a hotel? An ignored symbol. As Didion writes in The White Album, ‘the Royal Hawaiian is not merely a hotel but a social idea, one of the few extant clues to a certain kind of American life.’ For this life, Didion feels nostalgia. That is why her characters stay in fancy hotels, despite the dismal fates that accompany room service. In hotels, the Didion heroine, like Alice, falls down the rabbit hole into numb lawlessness, an ‘outland’ condition (recall Tom Outland in Willa Cather’s A Professor’s House).
In literature, it is more delightful to lose a self than to gain one. In Play It As It Lays (1970) a guest at a good hotel glamorously descends into dementia:
The room was painted purple, with purple Lurex threads in the curtains and bedspread. Because her mother had once told her that purple rooms could send people into irretrievable insanity she thought about asking for a different room, but the boy had unnerved her. She did not want to court further appraisal by asking anyone for anything. To hear someone’s voice she looked in the telephone book and dialled a few prayers.
Today, the woman in the hotel room might dial a phone sex service. (Didion’s novels, filled with contemporary argot, will either date or acquire time-capsule immortality.)
In The Last Thing He Wanted, a tersely beautiful work whose plot I will not attempt to summarise, Didion gives a definitive portrait of existence on the margins of permanent address. The heroine clocks a lot of time in hotel rooms, but the writer’s point of view also emanates from hotels. Such a writer has been sundered from nation, though nation may rise to claim her at the last, dire minute. Such a writer has no identity, and is, like Keats, continually filling in for others, whose stronger selves press upon her imagination. Such a narrator may be classified as paranoid, but her fear is justified: its fruit is ecstatic communion with the reader, and with the landscapes she passes through.
I am not in love with Didion’s overt subject-matter: politics, espionage, under-cover operations. Serious stuff. Who am I to wish she would write instead about her private languor? Her novels covertly depict purple anomie: the wish – usually a distraught, remote woman’s – to escape her life. The heroine of The Last Thing He Wanted, Elena McMahon, gives up her identity – against or with her will – and enters a shady kingdom of deals and assassinations. I haven’t gone underground, haven’t misplaced my passport, haven’t been kidnapped, and yet I recognise her description of wasted, savoured time:
At no later than ten minutes past seven on each of those mornings she put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and began to walk. She walked five miles, seven miles, ten, however long it took to fill two hours exactly. At no later than ten minutes past nine she had two cups of coffee and one papaya, no more. She spent the two hours between ten and noon downtown, not exactly shopping but allowing herself to be seen, establishing her presence. Her routine did not vary: at the revolving rack outside the big Rexall she would pause each day to inspect the unchanging selection of postcards. Three blocks further she would stop at the harbour, sit on the low wall above the docks and watch the loading or unloading of one or another inter-island freighter. After the Rexall and the harbour she inspected the bookstore, the pastry shop, the posters outside the municipal office. Her favourite poster showed a red circle and diagonal slash superimposed on an anopheles mosquito, but no legend to explain how the ban was to be effected.
Small rituals fix a wandering identity. Stoic breakdown is Didion’s territory, as it was Jean Rhys’s, Colette’s and, now, Lydia Davis’s – connoisseurs of isolation and erotic obsession. Rhys’s heroines suffer because of accidents and psychological peculiarities (unlucky throws of the dice), while historical chaos causes Didion’s characters to view the world in fragments. Are Didion’s themes larger than Rhys’s, or has Didion simply turned Rhysian materials into political allegory? Didion paints sweetly corrupt grifters in sentences so remote and cold and perfect they approach cruelty, the music of the thin blue line between catatonia and competence – that twilit state when one is ‘coping’, but only barely.
It is no surprise that one of Joan Didion’s most attentive readers has been Elizabeth Hardwick, whose own work, like Didion’s, is never merely essay or novel, even if, for the occasion, the work must pretend to be one or the other. Elizabeth Hardwick’s review of a theatre production is as much a novel as her under-recognised Sleepless Nights (a grand specimen of hotel prose) is an essay; Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted is as much an essay on nationality as it is a novel. Hardwick calls it a ‘thriller’. What thrills in The Last Thing is not the plot but the slow disintegration of the protagonist’s self, a process to which the Didion hotel prose remains entirely indifferent: her prose has its own duties to perform and will not pay close attention to the heroine. The prose’s task is stupefaction; this stupor may mirror the emotional state of the protagonist, but that is only a coincidence. The prose mimics catatonia because fugue states are the foundation of any prose that wishes to be contemporary. Maurice Blanchot’s novels might have been morbidly self-referential because his higher metaphysics demanded it, but secretly his sentences did the self-mutilating (autocoprophagic) Twist because he, like Didion, walked in fear of seeming out of date and knew that a contemporary sentence must be rigorous and – like a hotel room – anonymously allegorical.
On the first page of The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion calls this hotel sensibility ‘weightlessness’: ‘Weightlessness seemed at the time the safe mode. Weightlessness seemed at the time the mode in which we could beat both the clock and affect itself.’ Fiercely husbanded sentences sanction her aesthetic allegiance to drift, eddy and error. The sentence is the hotel room in which the disaffected consciousness stays for the duration.
Elena McMahon accidentally becomes assistant manager at a deadbeat hotel/motel called the Surfrider. Even when it has few guests, Elena stays on. A nearly empty hotel is the quintessential hotel, as a folded movie studio is more haunted, and more Hollywood, than a bustling, productive one. As Didion describes Elena at the Surfrider, I hear echoes of Wide Sargasso Sea’s tropic liminality:
The Surfrider’s Olympic-length pool had been drained. Whatever need there had been for an assistant manager had contracted, then evaporated. Elena McMahon had pointed this out to the manager but he had reasonably suggested that since her rooms would be empty in any case she might just as well stay on, and she had. She liked the place empty. She liked the way the shutters had started losing their slats. She liked the low clouds, the glitter on the sea, the pervasive smell of mildew and bananas. She liked to walk up the road from the parking lot and hear the voices from the Pentecostal church there. She liked to stand on the beach in front of the hotel and know that there was no solid land between her and Africa.
Why Africa? If Elena wishes to trade American identity for African placelessness, I wonder if primitivist fantasies underlie her willed vertigo.
At the end of the novel, the narrator recalls a conference ‘sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, at which eight members of the Kennedy Administration gathered at an old resort hotel in the Florida Keys to reassess the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis’. In its own, individual paragraph she gives us the following piquant information:
The hotel was pink.
Other than Didion, only Rhys would have relayed the hotel’s pinkness with such a minimal, aggressive act of paragraphing. What matters to the narrator is not the conference’s substance, but the pink hotel where it occurred. In a long, swaying sentence fragment, Didion evokes the storm around the hotel:
The power failing, the tennis balls long since dead, the candles blowing out at the table in the main dining-room where Douglas Dillon and his wife and George Ball and his wife and Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger are sitting (not eating, no dinner has arrived, no dinner will arrive), the pale linen curtains in the main dining-room blowing out, the rain on the parquet floor, the isolation, the excitement, the tropical storm.
In a gesture reminiscent of To the Lighthouse, Didion subordinates the words of bossy foreign-affairs honchos to the destructive, animating power of wind, which outlives statesmen and local pomposities. What matters, in Didion’s universe, is the circumstance-annihilating wind, and the hotel’s power to survive it. Didion’s art has checked into that pink hotel, and so her words absorb the wind’s inspiration – cruel, salvific. The narrator, too, has this power (immunity to earthquake, storm and change), if she can find a room vacant in the hotel, if she can hide from the concierge and the identity police and the government and the critics, and stay with the typewriter and her languor and her Basis soap and her bourbon in a nice room overlooking the water. Pink hotel prose outlasts controversy, personality and the limiting typologies that govern literary production. (Is it a thriller, poem or essay? Must we decide?) Didion’s narrator wants a second conference to take place at the same pink hotel:
I would like to have seen such a reassessment take place at the same hotel in the Keys, the same weather, the same mangroves clattering, the same dolphins and the same tennis doubles, the same possibilities. I would like to have seen them all gathered there, old men in the tropics, old men in lime-coloured pants and polo shirts and golf hats, old men at a pink hotel in a storm.
The vision is half Wallace Stevens, half T.S. Eliot – ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’ crossed with ‘Gerontion’. And it is entirely Didion to place such a poetic utterance – a paean to the dissolution of personality – in a work that poses as a political thriller, but in which the sentences have more glamour than the characters.
Incarnation, for Didion, is a revolving door in a hotel lobby where the two central characters in The Last Thing meet and where one has the luxury of overhearing universal secrets. There seems, in Didion’s work, a persistent connection between hotel and earthquake – if only because earthquake is California’s goddess of destruction, and because Didion portrays hotels as limbos receiving front-line reports of calamities.
Maybe she told him who she was because he ordered Early Times. Maybe she looked at him and saw the fog off the Farallons, maybe he looked at her and saw the hot desert twilight. Maybe they looked at each other and knew that nothing they could do would matter as much as the slightest tremor of the earth, the blind trembling of the Pacific in its bowl, the heavy snows closing the mountain passes, the rattlers in the dry grass, the sharks cruising the deep cold water through the Golden Gate.
Joan Didion is a Californian writer more than she is an American writer. Is hotel prose, however, an American mode? Two recent specimens of hotel prose have been composed by New York poets: Kenneth Koch’s Hotel Lambosa (a sequence of stories – actually, they are prose poems, if that designation makes a difference) and John Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont, a monumentally long volume of poems, many of them deliriously prosaic, all in slant homage to the French Surrealists, who understood hotels.
I do not know how far one may take the notion of hotel prose. I plan to take it quite far. I put these first gleanings forward, now, in praise of Joan Didion’s art. Of the sensibility implied by ‘pink hotel’, she is our finest living avatar.