Book Review

Joan Didion: The 1980s & 90s (PART ONE)

re-reading Joan Didion for the first time in my life

Oh no she did(io)n’t (is that something?)

Yes, I am back on the Didion. I can’t get enough.

With this latest Library of America compilation (is that the right word? Collection? Compendium? I don’t know, I don’t speak to people any more (maybe not “any more” but “in the present”, certainly. Hopefully I will do again, but who knows, I don’t really believe in the future any more Christ I need to get a life lolol haha wahoooo)), I possess four more new-to-me Didion books, plus the chance to reread the first of her texts I ever read.

It’s mid to late May. There’s chaos in the Middle East, the Ontario lockdown has been extended to June, my body still looks disgusting tho I am getting back into the habit of recreational cycling now the weather is good; the UK seems to be returning to normalish, the US is doing what it’s always done, but without the car crash charm of its previous, openly and gleefully repulsive, president.

It’s not a great world in the now. It wasn’t a great world in the previous century.

Re-reading Salvador (1983)

I remember exactly where I was when I first read Joan Didion.

I was in a campsite in Champagne as a stop off point on a drive to an ex’s family’s Tuscan holiday home lol.

It was the Summer of 2016, shortly after I had completed my 1,000km hike across Spain and it was a trip that functioned as a prologue of sorts to my annus horribilis. I was travelling to Italy with Cubby, my younger sister, a socialist academic and his then-lover, a Dutch liberal politico. (“Cubby” is not my younger sister’s name. It is my dog’s name.) We were sharing the driving of a white convertible nineteen-eighties beemer, and the evening after that night in Champagne, we camped just across a road from Lake Garda, a stunningly beautiful place. We drove through Switzerland, through tunnels and around mountains, and regularly I would have to pull over to take – let’s use the word terse – phone calls. Good times!

Once in Tuscany, we proceeded to spend ten days or so on a constant bender.

I remember one night passing out after taking some heavy duty prescription painkillers; I remember another night when [redacted]. Some of the people hanging out there drove back to Pisa to get a 4 or 5am flight back to London, and after dropping off the hire car they just started boozing by the river and then one of them fell off the wall onto the concreted banks like seven metres below and broke their spine. They fully recovered, but still, intense.

Anyway.

I remember sitting inside the laundry/dish washing area of that Champagne campsite and typing a blog about Salvador on my laptop. I was a different person then (tho alas already bald); fearful of the future yet trapped in a present I hated.

Hate is a better feeling than apathy, than boredom.

I need to change my meds and I need to have some adventures.

Reading Salvador that first time, in another life, was a nostalgic time, too, reminding me of the offensive undergraduate farce I took to the Edinburgh fringe.

Oh, things used to be happening, y’know, they weren’t always happened.

Oh, personal narrative, ohohohohoh.

Reading Salvador in the context of Didion’s wider body of work – both her later smash hit grief memoirs and her earlier work (some more of which I read in the recent book containing a small amount of her previously uncollected essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean), it was far more jarring than reading Didion as the rumour, the idea, of Didion that I encountered way back in 2016.

Didion was an unknown to me, then; an American writer, journalist, one of those New Yorker type writers who are considered both very serious but also seem to be very popular (a combination (seriousness and popularity) antithetical to my busted British soul); I read the book and I enjoyed it, but it took me three years or so before I visited her writing again; not because I was averse to doing so, but because I was a little overwhelmed by her prolificness and because, well, during a lot of that period I was having a very bad time (see my books, links to purchase at the end of this post).

Salvador stands out because Didion is in so much more danger here. Though, yes, she does write about visiting people living in poverty and she does visit places filled with people with addiction issues, the poorer end of hippie San Francisco is very different from a literal war zone. A literal war zone where American journalists had repeatedly been murdered with no motive other than their journalistness.

Salvador is an interesting book, offering a fascinatingly honest account of a journalist out of their depth, as – let’s be honest – most war reporters are to some extent.

Rather than falling into bravado, into risk-taking behaviour and chasing stories and images and encounters that could not safely be explored, Didion seems to withdraw; she writes what she sees and what she hears, but she is always aware of where she is; this is always “Joan Didion in a warzone”; I’m of the firm post-Barthesian opinion that no text (save the psychopathic) is truly devoid of authorial affect, so Didion’s willingness to run with, openly and honestly, that awareness is refreshing for me, though I imagine it would be highly frustrating for a person reading Salvador seeking an “unbiased” view of war. “An unbiased view of war, lol”

Didion doesn’t seem to “pick a side”, sure, it is “partisan”, but it’s also a deeply personal evocation of spending time somewhere where, quite frankly, many people present shouldn’t have been.

It’s an excellent short book, and I’m very excited to continue ploughing on through this collection with four more Didion reads. Yes yes yes please.

May 20th, I think

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