What does a snake know, or intend?

David Thomson

  • Where I Was From by Joan Didion
    Flamingo, 240 pp, £14.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 00 717886 7

This is not a long book, except in its view, which is like the view from a Sierra peak, where the omniscient author can see all the way from the Nevada desert, violet and dun, to the biblical meadows, the pretty colours and the plenty that will be California. The art direction of that great trek westwards was perfect – art direction usually is. And now here comes Joan Didion, a little bit like the doomsayer on the wagon train (Walter Brennan, with teeth), but too arresting to be ignored, to tell us the prospectus, like the prospect, was a hoax.

None of Joan Didion’s books has been long, exactly, not with the generous amounts of white space she provides, which serve as fresh linen and air conditioning after a day’s driving in the desert, some respite from the perils. But air conditioning, being a human enterprise, can go on the blink. Then the motel room becomes a furnace, and sooner or later someone will open the door to let in some cool night air. Whereupon, the rattlesnake can come sliding in, no noisier than a pen on paper.

‘What does the rattlesnake want?’ Didion might wonder; then give this hard-boiled retort: ‘I don’t ask.’ But the question never goes away. And by now it’s clearer, I think, that her book is in fact long, because it represents forty years of writing about the same subject more or less: can lovely sentences keep the horror at bay, or are you going to need to scream? After forty years, the writing is as good as ever, and the distraught young woman of the 1960s is older, but still here. So we can have the lovely sentences, but we have to take the bitter medicine, too. It’s like eating chocolate parfait and bacon (the first thing Treat Morrison notices about Elena McMahon in The Last Thing He Wanted).

Let me qualify ‘lovely’. It’s too close to something Didion might have picked up shopping (and she is crazy about clothes – you rarely know what her people look like, but she tells you all about the colours and the fabrics of their clothes, and the shops they came from), and it may be unduly suggestive of the strictly feminine. Instead, let me quote Didion, from 1978, on someone’s ‘perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.’ Not that she was referring to her own writing. You’ll have to guess who it was for the moment; it was an author she aspired to, one she had learned from, and one whose problems she does not always escape.

Do you think you know what a ‘sinkhole’ is? I ask because I wasn’t sure I did. So I looked it up and a sinkhole is ‘a hole formed in soluble rock by the action of water, serving to conduct surface water to an underground passage’. In other words, you might be swimming in the Sacramento River – water so sediment-thick you can’t see your hands – when you feel a tug at your feet and your thighs, a downwards drag. That’s one of the local dangers, just as in the Sierra in winter there can be small cavities beneath several feet of snow – a child can be running along in the fun and the chatter and go straight down a hole and be lost for ever. How long does the child stay alive in the white hole, waiting, wondering and helpless? Don’t ask.

Joan Didion is from Sacramento, no matter that she lives now on the Upper East Side, and may be best known for her nearly lyrical guidance on how a young woman in a Corvette might negotiate the Los Angeles freeway system. Sacramento is fundamental to Didion, to such an extent that this book’s emotional current is the death of the author’s mother in 2001, at the age of 90, after living most of her life in Sacramento’s unkind heat.

A lot of people go regularly to California, but would not think of visiting Sacramento. It is out of the way; it has no seashore. It is a place formed by rivers, their flooding and the calculated engineering that has used the water to make the vast San Joaquin Valley an open farm. About all you can say for Sacramento is that it is the site of the state government. It is very flat country, but you can see the beginning of the hills that rise up as the Sierra, the last great test for the pioneering people who came west in wagons.

In summer (when the state government goes away) there may be sixty days in a row when the temperature is over 100 degrees, and pushing 110. There is a lot of air conditioning in Sacramento now, but not in Didion’s childhood, and not when her family settled in the area. In the opening of Where I Was From, this very hip 68-year-old describes her family’s roots as far back as 1766, on the Virginia and Carolina frontier, and she is not just proud of those antecedents and of the shy, lonely harshness it seems to have left in her mother. She bears allegiance and believes in the pioneering code – always has done.

In 1965, she wrote an essay called ‘On Morality’ (magazine writing has turned a little more flippant since then), which tells of staying in a Death Valley motel, and hearing the story of a crash in which a young drunk was killed. The woman in the other car was badly hurt and had to be driven to the hospital (a hundred miles away). But her husband stayed on the road with the drunk’s corpse – against the coyotes. ‘You can’t just leave a body on the highway,’ someone says. ‘It’s immoral.’

And Didion picks up the point (or was it, even in 1965, more of a hope?):

I am talking, of course, about the kind of social code that is sometimes called, usually pejoratively, ‘wagon-train morality’. In fact that is precisely what it is. For better or worse, we are what we learned as children: my own childhood was illuminated by graphic litanies of the grief awaiting those who failed in their loyalties to each other. The Donner-Reed Party, starving in the Sierra snows, all the ephemera of civilisation gone save that one vestigial taboo, the provision that no one should eat his own blood kin.

Or anyone else’s?

These days, the Donner Pass is a recommended scenic pause on I-80, the interstate that goes from the Bay Area to Reno, to Salt Lake and back east. It’s a busier road in winter than in summer because of all the people who go up for skiing weekends. So the Tahoe-Donner area is a mass of cute matchbox lodges (with saunas, deep freezes and computers) pushed into the snow and the rock. The place is further crowded with cocktail lounges and smart burger joints. Eating is no problem, and being snowed in for a night can be a romantic adventure. There’s no need to eat each other, except as some fierce après-ski sport, part of the mixture of adultery and divorce that keeps California turning over. Not that I mean to be pejorative: in matters of romantic failure, California is what it calls a ‘no fault’ state. The state as an enterprise might be better off if it had a sounder tradition of taking some blame. You can talk about ‘no fault’ all you like, but the San Andreas split and those other tectonic abysses in the very structure of California are unimpressed. Sooner or later there’s going to be trouble.

That’s the more immediate ‘point’ of Where I Was From, which seems to be a book in which a famous Californian at last turns her home state in for questioning. In that sense, and as a promotable project, this pioneer life sentence artist may have wandered into weird luck inasmuch as the book’s publication in the States coincided with the bizarre election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. California, in so many obvious ways, has run out of steam, cash and character. It’s a prime moment for Cassandra, if not the Terminator.

But anyone who has been reading Didion for forty years will know that she was born with haunting doubts about her homeland and its legend. She was using Yeats to warn that the centre does not hold 36 years ago. She has been worried about the snakes all her life. And she knows enough to realise that Manhattan is no escape. For what she means by California is America as a whole, or the westward tendency, the restless, vague assertion that it is all going to turn out for the best. Instead of it being a suitable subject for autopsy.

There have been arguments over the years about Didion: has she been just an eloquent cry-baby, a fastidious coroner, whose composure could seem mannered in someone with so many gloomy, if not suicidal inclinations? You could be forgiven, reading some of the earlier books, for wondering if she wasn’t too sad, too delicate or too alienated to last. Where I Was From gives me hope that she could make it to 90 herself: Didion is one tough old bird. I would count on her to sit by the body if necessary, and stay awake all night if she believed there were snakes in the dry grass.

Didion published her first book, the novel Run River, in 1963 (a vintage year for worriers). It was written in New York on a typewriter purchased with money she made as a stringer for the Sacramento Bee. ‘I sat on one of my apartment’s two chairs and set the Olivetti on the other and wrote myself a Californian river.’ It’s a brilliant, precocious book, even if she now finds it tinged with ‘pernicious nostalgia’ or plain homesickness, not to mention those ordeals that are known as trying to grow up. Where I Came From is not a formally direct or complete non-fiction version of her life, but Didion approaches fiction and non-fiction in a similar way – the same ‘smoke’ makes the subjects equally elusive. Indeed, she warns the reader that this book ‘represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely’.

That’s a proper reservation to make; it’s something anyone might want to say. But don’t let the politeness obscure how Didionesque obliqueness is. For one of the essential underlying questions in her sentences is what can anyone do about feelings – those overwhelming things that are not far from love, morality and a sense of decency? The writer in Didion has always felt the danger of vulgarity in addressing such things directly – as directly as movies do, say. And on several occasions she has given us great works in which the refusal to be direct is the leverage or the fever in the prose. Or is ‘refusal’ too strong a word? Is it more like reluctance, inability, a dismay that she shares with her mother?

Her mother’s name was Eduene Jerrett, and you may think it oblique for the daughter not to reflect on that very romantic name – especially when ‘Joan’, for anyone born in 1935, is as blunt as Joan Crawford. (Her mother once told her that their family belonged to no class, but that’s a fine myth for an Eduene to shrug off on a Joan.) And Didion likes names as much as clothes. When young and in Paris, she looked up Didion in the telephone directory and found a lot. To which I’d add that ‘Maria Wyeth’ – she is the heroine in Play It as It Lays – is more likely to be found in an almanac of great names than in the Reno directory. Still, Reno means a lot to Maria because it’s her birthplace and stands for the gambling philosophy of the book’s title.

But the wonder in Where I Was From is the way in which Eduene Jerrett Didion develops, piece by piece, as the author’s mother, yet as someone who, even at 90, remained inexplicable, or fictional – or as moving as she was because of things not settled or addressed. Here again, I think the characteristic obliqueness in Didion’s work is a way of writing about people in fact and fiction as if they lived in the same remote or opaque place. ‘Getting’ people – or being mistaken about them – is one of the abiding perils in Didion’s fearful view of the world. And surely she sees herself in a similar way as ungraspable, as close to breakdown as to lucidity.

Eduene Didion did ‘nothing’ – in the sense that what Joan’s father, Frank, did was to be in real estate. But doing nothing must not be misinterpreted. She kept house in the heat of Sacramento. She was, as far as the reader can tell, a natural and extreme conservative. In the war years she followed her husband, an itinerant serviceman, bringing the children along, assuring them of the great adventure it all was, and crying only twice that her daughter ever saw (I suspect that from infancy Joan was an alert observer of feelings, even if she didn’t like to be caught watching). Eduene was also a child who, at twelve or so, had told her parents that she simply couldn’t accept that Jesus was the Son of God.

So, a determined, resolute, agnostic conservative? Pioneer stock? But then consider that Eduene was against the making of beds (because every night they got unmade). She was not even house-proud. She left the house undusted – and dust in Sacramento would be like a plague or a curse – so that Joan’s new husband, John Gregory Dunne, when he came to visit, would use a mischievous finger to write ‘DUST’ here and there. Dunne, who died at the end of last year, was tall, handsome, articulate, funny – the man of the world behind whose attractive show Joan hid and cultivated her obliqueness. But in the in-laws’ house he was referred to – in his presence – as ‘Joan’s husband’. As if to say his tenure was not yet confirmed.

But Eduene was odder still, granted that her twisted shape is all in Joan’s telling – in what is said and what omitted. When pushed to the point of decision on important things, she said five words that chilled Joan to the bone: ‘What difference does it make?’ This is vital, as constant as the river and as terminal as the sentences, for it gets at the last worry, the greatest, that in all the wagons west and pioneering, in all the strenuous self-dramatisation of being American, maybe nothing matters, maybe there is no meaning.

What was it that didn’t matter? There was a small cemetery outside Sacramento that had once belonged to the family. Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair; monuments had been smashed by vandals; graffiti everywhere; one body was actually dug up – as if for sport. In the wagon-train code a graveyard was more sacred than religion – and this one held members of the family. Decent burial was a way of defying the coyotes, the vultures and the indecent need to eat your own dead – the resort of the Donner Party.

The cemetery had some extra appeal to Joan the teenager – perhaps the quiet and the isolation. She used to drive there, and then walk around. Until one day she saw a rattlesnake (a western rattlesnake – nasty and aggressive) disappear into the dry waste. This would not be uncommon in Sacramento in summer. It was family wisdom that if you saw such a snake, you went in after it and killed it – this was supposed to be a help to the community.

‘What difference does it make?’ Eduene had asked when the upkeep of the cemetery was mentioned. And yet the same woman had once seen Joan’s younger brother, in his playpen, reaching out towards a copperhead (a snake, the bite of which is nasty but seldom fatal) that had come into the room. What does a snake know, or intend? This one looked and went away. And Eduene didn’t go after it with a broomstick or a club. Two hundred years before, more or less, one of Joan’s ancestors had been in the family house on the prairie, reading. He looked up and realised that Indians had come silently into the house. According to local lore the Indians were likely to kill them all. But they just inspected civilisation and went away.

As I say, we get only fragments of Eduene’s life, as if it were a broken plate, with some parts now missing. She seems hard, stoical, yet vulnerable and mysterious. But it surely cries out for more commentary when Didion recalls that as the deaths of Kennedy and Lee Oswald were being shown on television, Eduene remarked: Well, Oswald and Ruby had ‘every right’ to do as they did. That is an alarming mother to be uncertain of. That is more than being right of centre. That is something like giving up the ghost.

Yet Didion’s account of Eduene (which makes up the fourth part of Where I Was From) is magnificent and heartbreaking, without ever being sentimental. The last sentences suggest a bleak realist, declining to put it all into words, but horribly sure about how much that was precious or important or significant can be lost. I suspect that in describing her mother, Didion has come to terms with burial.

As you may have gathered, this is not a cosy book about an idyllic upbringing or a flawless America. It is not without irony (though it can take a reader some time to catch up with Didion’s mirthless amusement). And it isn’t remotely comfortable or reassuring – beyond the evidence that sentences can still open up such clamped souls. Indirectly (of course), this is a book about how a writer and a novelist might survive those achingly hot and silent summers. The title of Where I Was From refers not just to Sacramento and a far from benevolent family situation, but to wagon-train morality, the trust in meaning, in decency between the living and the dead, and a faith in the American project that turns not just on the Bill of Rights but on the acquired faith of the 19th century, and even the years up to 1945, that the project was entered into in common. (It’s worth recalling that Didion was ten when the war ended, with a father in uniform. You can feel that young mood in her reverence for those drowned at Pearl Harbor – even if that respect is filtered through the figures of Prewitt, Maggio and Warden from James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, a novel that plainly means a lot to her.)

Over the years since 1963, Didion has won a high reputation as a political journalist/ commentator. I’ve never been quite as sure of that talent, if only because American politics requires a dogged, unfragile willingness to join in the scrum, as well as the kind of humour that is amused by compromise. Add together Didion’s obliqueness and her very strong moral sense, and I’m not sure that she really enjoys politics, as opposed to seeing it as a relentless degradation of language and idealism. Compromise is not her habit.

She has no doubt about the mania for change in California, for instance, and she senses that there has never been a chance for permanence or stability. The bare facts are so startling that it might leave some people amazed that California has survived at all. From 1850 to 1860, the population of the state rose by 245 per cent; from 1860 to 1870 by 47 per cent; from 1870 to 1880 by 54 per cent. From 1900 to 1910, it went up by 60 per cent; from 1910 to 1920, by 44 per cent; from 1920 to 1930, by 66 per cent; from 1940 to 1950 by 53 per cent; from 1950 to 1960 by 49 per cent. Pat Brown, a former governor of California, has called this ‘the greatest mass migration in the history of the world’, which may be judged an example of boosterism as well as the creeping exaggeration common in political language. But Didion may be too forbidding about it: ‘There had been then, from the beginning, these obliterating increases, rates of growth that systematically erased freshly laid traces of custom and community, and it was from such erasures that many California confusions would derive.’

There’s something determinedly gloomy about that, something touched equally by paranoia and snobbery. You can look at these things differently. For instance, the great scheme of waterworks that changed the San Joaquin Valley (and much reduced the regular threat of flooding in the Sacramento area) has made an industry out of agricultural produce. That, in turn, has helped promote a habit of fresh food in California that is inseparable from the revolution in Californian cuisine – which is the sturdiest challenge to the dreadful dietary habits of American children and teenagers. Didion points out inanities: subsidies that support the acreage of rice and cotton, both of which need extravagant amounts of water but have only a small market. Yes, that’s dumb, and even crooked. But Didion stops short – as she must – of that old nightmare that Californians are wasting the last drops of water by keeping bright green lawns and turquoise pools. Far more water goes on agriculture than on residential use – and, despite intermittent droughts, the Sierra and the Rockies have enough snow water to keep the whole thing going. Indefinitely? We don’t know. But who knows those equations anywhere?

Didion loves water, and sometimes she has felt its flow as the religion of California. In 1977, in an article called ‘Holy Water’, she said:

The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.

Sacramento is an easier place to live in now than it was in 1935. Perhaps Didion resents that as much as her father did – he believed that after the dams were built on the rivers the summers got colder, too cold. The same father (he died in 1992) had ‘problems’ such that ‘the tension he transmitted would seem so great that I would have to leave, run to my room and close the door.’ In time (when Didion started at Berkeley), her father went to the Letterman Hospital for veterans in San Francisco for tests and psychiatric treatment. That help would have been virtually free, just as the cost of her years at Berkeley would have been nominal. Today, the rate is more than nominal, but it’s still a bargain. California has suffered grievous losses: our state education has deteriorated; our support for the arts has nearly dried up; our indulgence of the wealthy is unforgivable (all these things are as true of the rest of the country as they are of California). Our recall election was a travesty, a sign of the weakness for second-guessing every issue and decision, and of the dangers in giving up representative government for referendums.

But those faults can be mended. Didion, and others, need to ask themselves why – if California’s condition is so absurd – so many people have for so long insisted on getting themselves there. And it’s not just California. The move westwards has enriched other states: Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii (one of Didion’s cherished places, as hot as Sacramento, but moist). Didion’s insistence on seeing through the false dream of California is not recent, and not even based on evidence. It’s an instinctive assertion, an authentically dark vision; it’s being afraid of snakes. Even if, sometimes, snakes are the only creatures left to guard forsaken cemeteries.

When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.

That gets under your skin all right – like the Santa Ana wind – but I’m not sure exactly what it means, or meant: it is the conclusion to ‘On Morality’, written nearly forty years ago, and it is the Cassandra voice of the young Didion, unhappy with her world and herself, and beginning to understand that her own sentences were the only balm for her ‘nerves’.

There is a long section in which she sets out to make a case against modern California. It feels familiar, in part because it’s like the journalism she did in the 1960s and the 1970s – the cool pieces on folly and worse that distinguish Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album – but also because it derives from an article in the New Yorker. It’s about the crack-up of one of those artificial Southern Californian communities, Lakewood, when the aerospace industry broke down in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Members of a teenage gang, the Spurs, were accused of raping younger girls at a high school in Lakewood. Didion spent time there, and gives a very unsympathetic report – while having to admit that all charges in the case were dropped. It’s very depressing – on education, today’s children and the brittle nature of the Californian economy. But even if the story were a lot uglier – if the rapes were spelled out – it wouldn’t justify every Didion threnody on how California has gone wrong. And there’s always been a danger of her lamentations seeming to be her own prison or torment.

Just as I want to know what the Indians thought when they slipped into her ancestor’s house on the prairie, and just as I feel an urge to say that rattlesnakes are very scared of people (and with reason), so I’d like to hear a voice from Lakewood High School, an affectless yet insolent voice, refusing to assess but so very knowing, a voice close to that of Maria Wyeth, the stunned heroine of Play It as It Lays, the book that made Joan Didion famous and which can still shock readers rigid.

To backtrack a little, Didion majored in English Literature at Berkeley. While still at college, she wrote an article on the architect Wilson Wurster that won Vogue’s Prix de Paris award. That took her to New York in 1956. It was the first time she had been there, and she was wearing ‘a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal’. She was poor, without feeling it, and I’d guess she lived very simply. ‘I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it, I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name "Debbi Lynn” or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.’ Don’t ask. She was an actress in her privacy who would never need to go professional.

She wasn’t happy but the urban isolation suited her. ‘I began to cherish the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing.’ But she met John Gregory Dunne. They got married. And not long after that he wondered about moving to Los Angeles. She went back west with Run River in print, and the first pieces of journalism appearing.

They became figures in the city at a moment when it was changing, when young people were getting involved in the movies. (John’s brother, Dominick Dunne, was a fledgling producer.) John published some novels as well as Vegas and The Studio, a caustic and very entertaining account of 20th Century Fox as it went into critical condition. As a team, they started to do screenplays. For the money, I’d guess, and why not – better that than for the sake of art. That dream can really drive you crazy, especially if you end up with your names on Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born and Up Close and Personal.

In the 1960s Didion wrote the essays that constitute Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968) – pieces on the idea of Howard Hughes, the long title piece on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, a ‘love song’ to John Wayne that is less ironic than many readers wanted to think it in 1965, a dismantling of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara that is hilarious and merciless, such sundries as ‘On Morality’, ‘Keeping a Notebook’ and ‘On Self-Respect’, as well as ‘Marrying Absurd’ (it’s about the instant marriage business in Las Vegas and there’s a lot of condescension in that ‘absurd’) and ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ – so sharp a collection of casual Californian horror stories that it makes the Lakewood exposé seem a little earnest.

Didion might be shy, solitary and inclined to trail off in mid-sentence – not good with people, she would say – and I’ll accept that she’s proposing to be apologetic about that. Equally, I recall her celebration of Howard Hughes as ‘grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly asocial’. Still, Slouching towards Bethlehem was a bestseller and is essential reading on America in the 1960s. It captured a shrewdness about California (‘This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity’). It’s a book Maria Wyeth might have known by heart, reciting it as she drove the freeways, lulled by the magnificence of the writing. Joan Didion then was pretty, petite, fragile – she seemed to be having a headache in all her pictures – but she swung like Blossom Dearie cut with Eloise.

Play It as It Lays (1970) is a Hollywood novel. Maria Wyeth has been some kind of actress and is married to a hot director, Carter Lang. Or was. Her life is coming apart, but Maria declines to notice disaster, except as it impinges on and removes her from her infant daughter, Kate. Last year, it was selected by a radio book club in San Francisco, and a lot of people reading it for the first time seemed oppressed by its nihilism, and the dead-eyed precision with which so many hideous situations were described. Maria is numbly aware that in Hollywood the community eats its own as blithely as it might a Caesar salad.

‘I like Maria a lot,’ Didion has said. ‘Maria was very strong, very tough.’ I’m not sure that many readers hear her that way. She does soldier on, and she does take great pride in her routines and the way she has of laying them out in words. Yet the action of the book is grim and sordid, and in the movie (scripted by Dunne and Didion) it’s hard not to be moved by Tuesday Weld’s brave but crushed prettiness as Maria. In the film, Maria can drive the freeways but that only leaves her looking like a pilot to hell. In the book, however, Didion took flight in the description:

She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour . . . Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly . . .

So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered the body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying As. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack (she tried always to let the attendant notice her putting the bottle in the rack, a show of thoughtful responsibility, no sardine cans in her sink) and then she would walk to the edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back. To hear her own voice she would sometimes talk to the attendant, ask advice on oil filters, how much air the tyres should carry, the most efficient route to Foothill Boulevard in West Covina. Then she would retie the ribbon in her hair and rinse her dark glasses in the drinking fountain and be ready to drive again. In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter, the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills, a bad season in the city, Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette.

Just as a drive-by thought, what a marvel Los Angeles and California are to provide this auto playground for the listless – and how easy-going of them to keep Didion and Dunne as hot guests at parties as well as employable writers when they took such relish in picking wings off Hollywood butterflies. In other words, I’m not quite sure how well it fitted in with wagon-train morality to be critics of the system as well as its employees.

The Dunnes adopted a daughter, Quintana, held in great reverence by her mother, though there are petulant teenagers in the later novels, Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). ‘In the Islands’, written in 1969, is about her and her husband taking a break at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, ‘in lieu of filing for divorce’. In ‘In Bed’ (1968), she admitted to migraine attacks, four or five a month. Though shy to a degree, the actress-writer in her also wrote about her own mental health. She quoted a psychiatric report (her own): ‘A personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defences and increasing inability of the ego to mediate the world of reality and to cope with normal stress’ (it gets worse, and it’s the title piece in The White Album). Though Play It as It Lays was a hit, it was seven years before she published another novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), and then The White Album, like Slouching towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays, yet clearly the work of a more wounded person.

She said or left the impression that being moved, or touched, was everything for her. Yet in her stories it became apparent that people seldom touched. They thought about each other; they gazed at the world, the light and the air; and there was a developing magic that one might call cross-cutting, if that didn’t imply a debt to the movies. Didion was way past the movies. Her use of adjacency – of cutting stuff out so that sections of a work came up against each other with extra unease – was literary in the best sense. As an epigraph to Slouching towards Bethlehem, she had put Yeats in bed with Peggy Lee – his ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre’ with her ‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein and Cary Grant.’

All of this came to a head in Democracy, by no means her most highly regarded novel, yet to my mind her best and by far the most revealing. Democracy is a true romance, a love story. We do not get the touching, and so on: Didion is chaste as a writer, and the restraint is her eroticism. But the relationship between Inez Christian Victor and a fascinating government man, Jack Lovett (these are names out of the cashmere drawer, smelling of L’Air du Temps), is heady with intimations of passion, or the rapture of fine amity. It is a book set against the great time-zone distances of the Pacific about two people who live most of their lives apart, yet congruent, or thinking on the same lines. The control is breathtaking. The sweep of action, the crowd of characters, are handled with complete authority. And for the first time, I think, Didion felt able to admit her delight in the idea of a strong man, strong in thought and action (if not quite John Wayne or Gable, then maybe the William Holden of The Wild Bunch era – or that dreamy Holden ‘seen’ on the street in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer).

More than that, Democracy comes clean about the great prose writer sitting behind Didion: I said I would name him later. But he was obviously there in that hymn to expertise and daft prowess, the lane switch on the freeways. Hemingway: the writer Didion grew up copying out ‘to find how the sentences worked’, and one more artist caught up in the attempt to celebrate a very moral world where feelings are too precious to be addressed directly, except in a prose style so manly it hurts.

Maybe that’s a reason for the relative neglect of Democracy. In the 1980s, it was not the thing for any career woman, much less a model of cool feminism, to own up to loving Papa. And Hemingway, alas, went so far down his very narrow road to show how cockamamie the tight-lipped control of overpowering schoolboy feelings could be. Maria Wyeth handling the Corvette and peeling a hard-boiled egg is like Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees executing his own last bits of business before his heart breaks; Hemingway’s book was published when Didion was 15.

She has admitted coming of age in the time of male novels – ‘big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts’ – and of feeling disconcerted at the scant space allowed for women. ‘I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved – I suppose – deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.’ There’s that obliqueness again, and some hint of the difficulties it may face whenever it opts to handle ‘sincerity’. Didion does not like to be taken by such approaches. I think one reason so many people find Maria Wyeth anything from a slut to a zombie is her dedicated commitment not to fall into earnestness and candour. She does a back-talk act with herself to flatten out lofty moments and insights: ‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’ Indeed not, but only on the innate and even elitist assumption that we ought to know what is evil and what is true. Maria’s life is a mess but she does not suffer from inner muddle – she knows the inside stuff.

Here is something that goes back to the best in Hemingway. That while he sought a style as cold and clear and shriven as the river water coming down from the Pyrenees where you could see a trout and its loveliness as if it were the fish of fishes, and while he and Didion aspire to that fuss-free prose, still they remain stricken by feelings – the very object of their exercise. And they therefore developed writing as a code and a cult in which all the feeling was to be kept between the lines (in the white zone – or The White Album). Thus the serene spaciness in dialogue, and Didion’s steadfast devotion to blankness. It is a tricky way to go. Shyness can seem like snobbery or aloofness, or even poker-faced intimidation. The constant struggle between courage and fear can make you daft. After all, snakes are not truly biblical serpents – not if you can’t credit Jesus as the Son of God. For forty years her attempt has been the most absorbing modern reading I know. Where I Was From is one of her best and is like that fine trout – pristine and clear, yet flickering with movement and the uncertainty you can see in a snake’s eye. It’s never been caught yet. Let alone eaten.

On several occasions, Joan Didion has said something like ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ That’s hardly an original observation, but forty years on she stays loyal to the vocation. For it may be that she has found life difficult – that, really, is her malaise, like a child’s dismay on seeing how far life’s river is spoiled, or made with sinkholes. So be it. I understand her foreboding about the California dream. I do not dispute it. Still, as one who came late, by Mazda instead of wagon-train, I have to thank her for leading me to California and making the water feel like a sacrament.