This was, of course, magnificent.
For almost three weeks, I read almost nothing but the prose of Joan Didion, as I dived into this new Library of America collection of five of Didion’s books.
What I usually do when reading a volume that contains many distinct books is write micro-posts as I go through, subheading by subheading. With Didion I didn’t do this.
Because it was Christmas and then New Years so I was travelling to and from my lover’s parents’ home and then, once back, my job was hectic and as today is maybe the first time I’ve been home and able to get any proper work done since December, so the first thing I did was spend the day doing more productive/creative pursuits than adding to my tiny little cutesy sad blog.
It certainly wasn’t because the Didion books I read weren’t worth commenting on. Because, oof, they fucking were.
Didion’s first book was a novel, Run River, published in 1963, though her first breakthrough essay collection was the (much more famous) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which was published in 1968.
Run River is a pretty conventional novel, all told, though I read an interview with Didion where she spoke about her initial draft being – like A Book of Common Prayer (see below) – much more formally and structurally complex than it ended up being.
The novel is set in one of the big fertile farming valleys of Northern California, close to Sacramento, and it’s about the lives, loves, murders and affairs of two families of hops growers in the mid 20th century. As you can no doubt guess, hops were on the out in this part of the world at this time (as The Grape was on the way in), so there is a backdrop of “the end of an era” spinning gently in the background of this tale of sex and death. It’s an enjoyable novel, of course: the characters are strong and Didion’s prose is evocative, but at the end of the day it’s a mid-century, middle class novel about rural/suburban affairs d’amour in affluent California, so it’s hardly a revolutionary text…
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, however, is revolutionary. I mean maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s certainly new and fresh in a way that Didion’s first (and second) novel were not.
Didion’s essays have that whole New Journalism-thing vibe: she is investigating things and not pretending she isn’t there when she writes up her investigations.
The New Journalism thing was kinda the opposite of the ‘death of the author’ thing: people speak differently when they know they’re talking to a journalist, so why not mention the journalist in your journalism? Makes sense.
In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion dives (second time I’ve used that word) into the hippie scene in San Francisco. I won’t go into detail because that’s the purpose of the essay, but Didion is insightful and witty on this topic, as she is elsewhere, including in a memorable piece where she interviews an over-the-hill John Wayne as he is filming [yet another Western] in Mexico.
There’s also lots here about place, about the changes that are happening in California, and there is a conspicuous absence of the politicising of experience which will become, latterly, what Didion is known for. It’s a great collection of essays, and the eponymous one on hippies and LSD and rock music is incredible, but there is much more bite in her second essay collection, 1979’s The White Album.
Before that, though, is 1970’s Play It As It Lays, a solid – though not exceptional – novel about shagging and boozing in the glamorous world of Hollywood. It’s good: moving and, again, evocative, but it’s rich people and affairs in LA so it’s, alas, not unfamiliar.
In 1977, though, Didion published a novel that I honestly think is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. A Book of Common Prayer has a headily complex structure, which I will try to explain here:
- There is a narrator who is a middle-aged American woman living in the fictional Central American republic of Boca Grande. She is the widow of the former dictator (or maybe the former dictator’s brother, I forget) and she has managed to survive the regular coups because she has inherited control of the ruling (now from the shadows) family’s finances and – I think this is the plot point – they will NOT revert to them if she dies without voluntarily changing her will. OK. This is the narrator, but not the main character.
- The main character of the novel is the [also] American Charlotte Douglas, a “reclusive socialite” who is hanging out in Boca Grande after the dissolution of her second marriage, which happens after the daughter from her first marriage is forced on the run after she does a domestic terrorist attack on a bank and releases a video promising more violence from her anti-capitalist cell. Charlotte has recently died in Boca Grande.
- The plot of the novel is that the narrator is dying and as she does so she retells the story of Charlotte’s life, based on the conversations that they had while their lives overlapped and Charlotte had affairs with the narrator’s son and her brother-in-law[s]. As the narrative goes on – out of order, memories linking to memories à la Proust – we learn more about Charlotte and her family but also about the narrator and her discontent with the results of, essentially, trading her freedom for money and the fringes of power in a small (fictional) country.
Though the novel has dated somewhat in its focus on rich white people rather than the people whose lives are affected by the powerful in a corrupt dictatorship, in terms of its structure, A Book of Common Prayer is like no [relatively] recent novel I’ve read.
Though, yes, Tristram Shandy and the aforementioned Proust make use of the digressing narrator, neither of these combine it with an exciting, political thrillery-type plot.
Didion does that thing which loads of writers try and fail at doing, which is making a literary thriller that is truly literary. The reader knows, from the off, that Charlotte ends up murdered and that her daughter is an on-the-run anti-capitalist terrorist. What Didion thus presents is an in-depth, out-of-time character study: it is truly ambitious and Didion fucking pulls it off.
This is the kind of book that writers dream of (eg Daniel James): a thrilling narrative written in a truly inventive style that manages to lose none of its tension, nor its characterisation, in spite of structural complexity.
It’s an emotional and emotive novel: to be honest, I fucking loved it and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous. If I had any friends (I don’t lol, not where I live, anyway) then I’d recommend they all read it. Maybe I wouldn’t. Who knows? One does one do with friends?
A Book of Common Prayer was great.
And, of course, The White Album is spectacular, especially its titular, opening, essay that is a collage of snippets and memories and anecdotes that document the end of a movement, a time, an ethos and a myriad of identities, an exploration of physical and mental illness, of travel, of maturation, of murder and violence and fear. (Didion writes here about the Charles Manson cult).
Elsewhere in this collection are a series of short pieces about Hawaii and its changes since World War Two, there’s a surprising piece about Didion’s long-standing interest in the logistics and construction of shopping malls, there are pieces about dams and water supplies and there’s a rather dispiriting essay where Didion mocks second-wave feminists, but from not from the more progressive perspective that would mock them now. As Didion ages, she – in contrast to the stereotype – becomes more left wing, and having only really encountered her later work before it was jarring to find some opinions in her writing that would be considered near-extreme sexism forty years on.
That essay aside, it’s a beautiful collection, full of felt honesty and witnessed experience.
It’s fascinating reading: there’s a warmth to Didion’s writing that goes against the intrinsic conservatism that she sometimes expresses. To be unjudgemental, this is likely the result of growing up amongst farmers (it is the possession of land, not age, that turns people right wing), and it is the things she sees and the people she meets during the ’80s and beyond that made her realise there are extant societal barriers and deep inequalities that still need redress.
Maybe, then again, she didn’t. I don’t know the truth of Didion’s politics, I just know that writing about people the way she does in Salvador, for example, shows a care for others – and others who one is under no obligation to care about – that is at odds with right wing political thought.
This is a gorgeous book of writing. Some impressive fiction and some beautiful essays. I recommend this, certainly, if you’re into these kinda things… Nice!