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The Last Thing She Needed

books and culture

The Last Thing She Needed

A new biography of Joan Didion aims high but misses wide. November 27, 2015
Arts and Culture

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin‘s Press, 728 pp, $35)

Why do I keep seeing this one image of Joan Didion so often recently? I‘ve seen it crown two out of three recent profiles or reviews, and here it is again, in all its icy monochrome perfection, on the front of Tracy Daugherty‘s outsize biography. It was even splashed across one side of a season‘s briefly fashionable tote bag (the other side proclaiming MAGICAL THINKER, which seemed to me a most un-Didion-like phrase, even if it did sort of recycle one of her most recent titles). Is there some kind of demand being responded to here? Is there something in the air?

“Jacket photograph copyright 1970 Julian Wasser”—which makes the Didion in the photo 36 and returns us to a moment when the woozily optimistic saturnalia of the sixties was shifting down into a murkier time of serial overdose and retreat: the Exile on Main Street years. This was also high times for the so-called New Journalism—almost midway between Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (1966) and Tom Wolfe‘s clamorous manifesto-compilation of 1973. Didion (and her husband John Gregory Dunne) could be found in the contributors‘ rolls of the latter, alongside burly big hitters like Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, and Hunter S. Thompson; but her presence on the page was markedly different from these other stars in the “nonfiction” firmament. She didn‘t burst from the platform of her magazine work like some raucous volley of fireworks. Didion‘s tone was more reserved, more quietly insinuating, and sometimes slightly disturbing; you might occasionally mistake the authorial “I” of those early pieces for a more astringent and censuring sensibility from an earlier century, navigating our choppy twentieth-century rapids.

Anyone thinking of teaching Celebrity Journalism 101 could do worse than compare Truman Capote‘s infamous 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando (“The Duke In His Domain”) with Didion‘s 1965 “John Wayne: A Love Song”: two rugged American icons up close and personal, one rakishly (even freakishly) liberal, one pure redwood Republican. Capote sits back and lets Brando do all the serious damage with his own scatty, pretentious gab; Didion intimates that the softly melancholy world of Wayne and his cronies is long past its last round-up—but she‘s never flip or cruel about it. If anything, the dominant tone here is hesitantly rhapsodic, a fond fare-thee-well: “As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.” It was also an early indication that, politically speaking, it would always be a tricky job placing Didion anywhere on the available spectrum.

The flashy shooting stars of New Journalism proved to have distinctly variable shelf lives. I recently started a “looking back” piece on Hunter S Thompson but ultimately floundered: I just found the full story too depressing for words, on too many levels. In retrospect, the range of subjects grappled with by a groovy New Barbarian like Thompson didn‘t take us very far, very often, out of a rather samey orbit. Hold the front page! Here is the strange and surprising news: Hell‘s Angels are NOT Boy Scouts! Big drug dealers are NOT Boy Scouts! Richard Nixon is NO Boy Scout! The unhinged author himself is . . . etc. Didion‘s tone was less bulked-out, more lapidary, and unobtrusive rather than messily point-scoring and loud. She relied less on showy lines and busy syntax and more on establishing a certain kind of hypnotic, shark-eyed mood. Perhaps because Didion also had (or surely intended to have) a successful career as a novelist, she didn‘t need to use journalism as a way to smuggle in the Great American Novel under wraps.

If Didion possessed a quieter sensibility, it would be a mistake to peg it as a more defiantly “feminine”—or even feminist—one. Friends in liberal circles were delighted when she sent up “pretty” Nancy Reagan; less pleased when she did the same thing with some of the more starry-eyed avatars of the Women‘s Liberation movement. She already had a sharp eye (and ear) for the little fudges and blind spots in ideological syntax on both sides of the street. As a working mother herself, she naturally saw the need for certain pragmatic political demands, but she talked also of “the coarsening of moral imagination to which . . . social idealism so often leads.” She seemed ill at ease with the all-or-nothing verities of an emergent identity politics: “The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.” And while it‘s probably fair to say that she was never going to run for, or place, in any kind of Republican Mom-of-the-Year contest, she could offer scathing put-downs of her own gilded social circle: “[t]he public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.”

One thing I will say straight off in favor of Tracy Daugherty‘s The Last Love Song: it‘s nice to see that the cover image comes complete with Didion‘s 1970s cigarette intact, allowed (in memory, at least) to foul the pristine California air once again. Probably one of the reasons this photo is so popular is that, hypothetically, you can‘t be sure what year it was taken: the woman in the image isn‘t instantly identifiable with any particular time frame. Didion isn‘t excessively sixties- or seventies-looking. She isn‘t incoherently à la mode: no embarrassing fright perm or heavy ethnic jewelry or purple granny glasses. This is a woman versed in some other visual language entirely—cool, remote, poised. (Soigné, I think, is the preferred fashion-mag word.) In a more recent photo used for a Celine marketing campaign, Didion looks like the 81-year-old woman she now is; what‘s more notable (and also what I‘d guess fashion people like about it) is that her “look” now is as Zen-cool as it was in her hanging-with-Jim-Morrison days: still minimal, pared back, “classic.” Rare, in fact, is the picture of Didion that seems at all cruelly date-stamped. Non-fans of Didion (apparently, they do exist) might say this is of a piece with what they find weak and self-parodic in her reportage: that it often didn‘t appear to matter where she was sent, or whom she profiled, or what year it was—the story always emerged in the same airy, detached Didion semaphore.

In fact, a sober trip back through the books on the shelf reveals at least three discrete Didion periods: the name-making investigative reportage of 196879; the nonpareil arc linking Salvador to Political Fictions; and her recent more-ruefully personal work, each of which reflects a markedly different attitude to—well, we can call it politics, or better say her sense of what‘s at stake in the various narratives of public life. There‘s a long closing paragraph in her montage-essay “Good Citizens” that provisionally sketches a distinct post-sixties slump and general bafflement at both ends of the political spectrum: it might be snipped out and reprinted, as is, today. She identifies a widening gap between the everyday struggles of ordinary people and the empty language of “problems and solutions” used by slick, vote-grabbing politicos, who tend to gloss over real problems (especially if said problems are stubbornly economic rather than handily and divisively “cultural”) and offer abstractly “hopeful” solutions. That might begin to explain why many citizens feel so angry but also so deeply apathetic. I suspect that present-day Didion would claim that the only real difference between now and 1970 is that way too large a segment of the reporting media have let themselves be co-opted into the same anodyne, distracting chatter of “problems and solutions.”

Precisely how Didion‘s work relates to its time is one of the declared interests of literary biographer Daugherty (previous subjects: Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme). Daugherty writes what he calls “literary biography as cultural history.” But didn‘t Didion herself already do the “cultural history” thing—and rather well? In her own way, she pitched down into the deep moods and hidden textures of history, rather than just skimming off slogans and clichés. Here, on the other hand, is Daugherty in characteristic “cultural history” mode: “Taking their cue from The Doors, the baby boomers shouted, ‘We want the world and we want it now!‘ Didion was intrigued and appalled.”

Daugherty seems to want it both ways: in a rather precious preface, he claims not to be the sort of grubby biographer who goes for the “dish.” But any biographer is almost by definition a very nosey fellow, and once Daugherty‘s high-minded thoughts have drifted out with the Malibu tide, we soon plunge headlong into the home life of Didion and Dunne (and the latter‘s even more dish-worthy family members, Dominick and Griffin). It‘s pretty odd, this notion of being less concerned with gossip than with The Work. Who on earth still reads conventional Lit Crit nowadays? And what kind of Lit Crit might Didion herself suit or attract? Her work is already a canny merger of idioms: reportage, memoir, political rhetoric, semantic analysis, essayistic reflection. In fact, Didion has already told us so much about her life, it makes you wonder whether a biography was really necessary.

Things are further complicated by the fact that Daugherty got zero help from Didion and very little face time with any of her family or close friends. (My favorite lines in the book all came from Eve Babitz—Los Angeles scene-maker extraordinaire, but someone with only the most tangential relation to Didion‘s work.) If you want to know why the Didion-Dunne marriage went a bit rocky around the end of the sixties, you‘re left not much wiser. But we do find out where 1970s Malibu Didion went for dinner-party staples and gorgeous orchids. There seems to be an internal struggle going on here between Daugherty the noble literary critic and Daugherty the author of a big, glamorous biography. We get too much domestic scene-setting, especially during the Los Angeles years: what markets Joan frequents; her fall-back menu for dishy dinner parties; the color scheme of her writing room. At times, Daugherty‘s book reads like it was written by someone who‘s accepted a bet to do a noir parody of the kind of celebrity profile (marriage, décor, menus, children) you might find in People magazine.

Sometimes, Daugherty quails at how other-worldly Didion‘s networking Los Angeles life has become, but Didion-Dunne can‘t win. If they act like artists, they‘re held up as hopeless naifs; if they join a writer‘s union or engage a lawyer to make sure they get proper recompense for their hard work, they‘re reactionary breadheads! When the Didion-Dunne scriptwriting partnership manages to come out of the nerve-shredding trial of the 1976 Barbra Streisand vehicle A Star Is Born with proper payment for all their successive script treatments, Daugherty sums up thusly: “The movie went on to earn over $66 million, a percentage of which made a nice payday for the snobby intellectuals.” (Say what? Where did those last two words leap from! Envy? Reverse snobbism? Or is this just Lit Crit flip?)

If we don‘t get any real Didion dirt, what we do get are endless pages of Daugherty writing as if located deep inside Didion‘s diurnal “I” (“reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms,” as he sees it). He tries to echo or simulate her sensibility by writing like her—or at least, by deploying similar-seeming stylistic devices like mucho white space, random italics, and punchy one-line paragraphs. He effectively blows this undercover mission with what proves to be something of a Daugherty trademark—a positive blizzard of fizzy exclamation marks.

It all feels a bit Creative Writing 101: “The shape of her writing—fragmented, jagged—suggested the chaos of contemporary circumstances.” Well, maybe. Fragmented? Sure, after a fashion. Jagged? Arguable. At its highwire best, her prose is prickly, but also possessed of a gorgeous, lilting, musical rhythm. (Parlor game: if Joan Didion were an LP, who would it be by? Randy Newman? Warren Zevon? Roseanne Cash? Morton Feldman?) Didion‘s mosaic style works only because it‘s so tough-shelled, precise, worked-on. Daugherty shows what happens when such a style lapses into mere reflex tic, a not so expertly wielded mannerism. I think Didion‘s style is stranger and more elusive than Daugherty‘s one-dimensional take on it. It‘s like the literary equivalent of one of those Hollywood “dolly zoom” shots, seeming to whoosh in and shudder out at one and the same time. In Didion‘s “memoir,” Where I Was From, we get this in full effect: what seems to be a focusing-in on standard personal data (family, childhood, hometown) is accompanied by a panning-out to take in contemporary California and a whole raft of socio-economic problems.

Increasingly, Didion‘s core concern in such reportage is with language itself and how she feels it‘s become utterly devalued as social currency. All the confident duplicities—self-help mantras, rebranding jingles, campaign promises—and how eerily similar they‘ve begun to sound. Buzzwords in the air during the Reagan presidency; CIA-speak; economist data; shadowy deals, just under the skein of everyday discourse—they‘re all there in fiction like Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted: a trance-like repetition of everyday speech till its moorings begin to fray and untie and unmoor everyone involved.

One good section early on in The Last Love Song details the young Didion‘s 1956–66 tenure at Vogue under Allene Talmey and a more personal apprenticeship with the hard-drinking, Maileresque writer and roué-about-Manhattan, Noel Parmentel. Parmentel also mentored Didion‘s husband-to-be, John Gregory Dunne, and eventually introduced the couple. What Didion got from Vogue/Talmey and the “demanding” work of caption-writing, was an education in self-editing, learning what to leave out, writing as creatively limited space and shape. (Talmey: “We wrote long and published short and by doing that Joan learned to write.”) What she got from Parmentel is harder to summarize; but it‘s perhaps telling that we once again brush up against hard-to-place politics: “In print, [Parmentel] savaged the right in the pages of The Nation, would turn around and do the same to the left in National Review . . . and blasted both sides in Esquire.”

Writing-wise, the “iconic” Didion (the textual parallel to that photo) is generally taken to be her freewheeling work in 1968‘s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and 1979‘s The White Album: a stiff-backed, quietly purposive young reporter given the gift of truly exciting times: Manson and Morrison, Nixon and Reagan, the Panthers and Patti Hearst and Women‘s Lib. But this may not be the most interesting moment in Didion‘s long career, and it is to Daugherty‘s credit that he gives equal consideration to her (for some of us) equally fascinating “middle period”—Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted; Where I Was From; the spectral reportage of Miami and Salvador, plus some of the essays collected in After Henry.

The problem here comes when Daugherty slips back into the slyly confidential tone of one who was there, and knows what his subject was thinking every step of the way. It certainly made me feel a bit ethically queasy when he began to linger over every shiver and blot in the short and apparently troubled life of Didion‘s adoptive daughter, Quintana Roo. This sits uneasily with Daugherty‘s loftily stated aim of tracing the intersection between Didion‘s work and the wider zeitgeist of the day. We end up with a book that manages to say some of the right things, but in a rather shrill and patronizing and often just plain icky way.

The shame of it is that an interesting book remains to be written about the road travelled from the days of long Saturday Evening Post pieces to today‘s daily updated-insider blogs: the yawning difference between media and politics then and now, and how Didion‘s work has traversed all these changes. It often happens that an artistic era suddenly comes into intense focus for the generation that comes of age following it. And this is what currently seems to be happening with figures like Didion and with Patti Smith: certainly a lot of younger women seem to identify with the example of such lives, with their hopeful, headstrong beginnings, as well as with their stoic, grief-burnished final acts.

As well as that photo, there may be another reason that Didion is getting play with a younger-than-usual readership: could there be something about Didion‘s eerie, semi-fictional Los Angeles that strikes a chord with kids whose first big pop music crush is Lana Del Rey? Is it pushing things to see something of Didion‘s haunted fiction in the video for Del Rey‘s “High By The Beach,” for instance, and a set that could have stepped right out of a long-ago Didion essay? “It streamed down the blank windows of unleased offices, loosened the soft coastal cliffs and heightened the most characteristic Santa Monica effect, that air of dispirited abandon which suggests that the place survives only as illustration of a boom gone bankrupt . . . .” What chance a Hollywood remake of Play It As It Lays, with Del Rey making her big screen debut . . . and perhaps with a cameo for Saint Joan herself, as a wise old psychotherapist, a long-ago mover and shaker, and—most of all—a quietly dignified survivor.

Photo by Julian Wasser

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