Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion (Knopf, 192 pp., $23)
The voice was there almost from the beginning. Cool, controlled, obsidian-sharp, its core of self-assurance wrapped in gauzy diffidence, engaged even (or especially) by what repels it, this voice greets you from the first acerbic sentence of the first piece, circa 1968, in Joan Didion’s new collection of old essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean: “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are . . .” Soon after, we get something like the credo of a thirtysomething Didion’s highly subjective brand of journalism: “I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias.”
Didion has since spent a long career bringing her particular bias to subjects as diverse as El Salvador and Martha Stewart, marital grief and the Hoover Dam, frequently uncovering details that others had missed, revealing that what had seemed peripheral was in fact central. She conveyed her judgments inductively, early on, and then, in later years, more explicitly, as though stripping the insulation from a wire. At all times, encoding the Didion perspective, there has been her famously elegant, yet somehow cockeyed, prose—the world seen through cracked crystal.
“There was always about Robert Mapplethorpe,” she writes in one piece, “an astonishing convergence of quite romantic impulses.” Surely what she means is that romantic impulses converged, astonishingly, in the photographer, or in his pictures; what does it mean for impulses to converge about him? It would seem we are meant to picture him framed by or suspended in a field of romanticism like a medieval saint’s mandorla. And that quite in “quite romantic impulses,” practically a Didion signature—what, exactly, is it doing? That Let Me Tell You is a collection of B-sides hardly lessens the pleasure of hearing again this distinctive voice, which for decades has remained true to its obsessions, even when composing lectures—like the revealing “Why I Write,” included here—or penning occasional pieces. These obsessions have long made Didion a sort of neurasthenic canary in the cultural coal mine, trilling her bleak and brittle song.
They have also made her an icon. This is the white-Corvette Didion, the dark-glasses Didion, the writer who repaired to Honolulu, as she wrote in The White Album, “in lieu of filing for divorce.” By the 2010s, when Didion worship was at its height, she had become a marketable brand. Goodbye to All That, a 2013 anthology of leave-taking essays, was named after Didion’s famous farewell to New York. Didion may or may not approve of the conflating of her identity with her creative output, but she surely understands the impulse, and has understood it since long before she mined her personal history for two celebrated memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. “‘Magic’ was what Tony always wanted, in life as in work,” she writes of the British producer-director Tony Richardson in a piece from 1993, collected here, “and, like most people who love what they do, he made no distinctions between the two.”
In “Last Words,” perhaps the finest of the pieces in Let Me Tell You, Didion considers Ernest Hemingway’s legacy and his lasting impact on her. Upon first reading the opening sentences of A Farewell to Arms, at 12 or 13, she “imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange 126 such words myself.” She sat at her Royal and typed out Hemingway by the yard for practice. Years later, she wrote the script, with her husband, for a 21-minute HBO adaptation of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway as man and myth, she writes, loomed so large that
we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.
Didion’s blessing and burden, relative to Hemingway, was to be marooned in the after-time, amid the crack-up of romantic individualism and the rise of hippiedom, its ersatz equivalent. Hot on its heels came the hedonistic “Me Decade.” It was a decade that Didion spent honing a way of looking and writing and thinking adapted, in part, to the fools of her time, whom she refused to suffer gladly, whether they were the Haight-Ashbury burnouts of Slouching Towards Bethlehem or the political insiders whose closed-circuit world she skewered decades later for The New York Review of Books. The woman who in 1964 voted “ardently” for Barry Goldwater moved leftward over the years, but she remained the furthest thing from a joiner. Her authorial stance, from first to last, is Whitman’s: “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”
“We were connoisseurs of synonyms,” Didion writes of her early years at Vogue. “We were collectors of verbs.” It may or may not be painful for so exacting a writer, a writer to whom putting the right words in the right order has always mattered a great deal, that her work is chiefly thought of, by casual readers and would-be imitators and fervent admirers alike, as a triumph not of perception or intellect or even sensibility but of style. “People idiotically read her for style and miss what she was actually saying, which, from the sixties to the nineties, was smarter—and more uncool, and farther out on a limb—than almost anyone else,” the New Yorker writer Nathan Heller said in 2019, in a Twitter thread I took part in. From chronicling personal and cultural malaise she grew into a writer capable of implacable inquiry into what she called, in her 1988 essay “Insider Baseball,” “the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States.” Political Fictions, the book of Didion’s in which “Insider Baseball” is collected, is dynamite on a slow fuse. No one else of her caliber was doing what she was doing then, performing a close reading of modern political messaging and branding, keyed to its absurdities.
Didion is now 86, having grown old alongside the New Journalism she helped pioneer. Let Me Tell You is likely to be her swan song. It is a matter of regret that she is not still at the height of her powers, the better for her skillful prose to rebuke an age when one can hardly find a glossy-magazine feature that doesn’t have its share of malapropisms, the better for her hard skeptical intelligence to serve as a corrective to a media establishment growing ever more brazen in its political activism and ever less nuanced in its presentation of stories. That she long ago put her own stamp on American rhythms of speech and thought is unquestionable, but the line of succession—from Hemingway to Didion to whom?—is unclear. Certainly less clear today than it was in 1950s California, where lived the teenaged daughter of conservative Republicans who would one day venture south of the border to write, “In El Salvador one learns . . . that hair deteriorates less rapidly than flesh, and that a skull surrounded by a perfect corona of hair is not an uncommon sight in the body dumps.” Papa would have been proud.
Recalling her senior year at Berkeley in “Why I Write,” Didion reflects on the images that have remained in her mind long after the academic learning she fitfully acquired has passed away:
I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light.
Will any precocious child of 12 or 13 read this today and dream of one day writing like that?
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