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Becoming Joan Didion

Her new book 'South and West' didn't predict Trump. But it is a fascinating work in progress.

Neville Elder / Getty Images

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when Joan Didion ceased to be a contemporary writer in the public imagination and began to be converted into a saint of the literary canon. It may have started in 2011 or ’12 after the publication of her memoir Blue Nights, which brought renewed interest in her personal life, culminating over the next several years in two biographies, a crowdfunding campaign for a documentary, and a turn modeling for Celine. This last event, in particular, indicated Didion’s sudden return to prominence: Somewhere, in some office, there was market research suggesting that Joan Didion’s face could sell sunglasses.

Didion has never ceased to be famous, of course, and fully two generations of writers have come of age venerating her image, both overwhelmed by and desperate to imitate her nonfiction. But this decade has been different. Didion studies have re-entered the mainstream, but now instead of engaging critically with the work of a living author, her devotees reflect on her legacy as a major figure from a bygone era. “For all her brilliance, Didion might now be deemed too haughty to tolerate, the ultimate white girl,” Meghan Daum proposed in the September, 2015 issue of The Atlantic. This is not the kind of sentence that is published about a contemporary, but more like the probe of the Devil’s Advocate, spotting potholes on the road to sainthood.

Knopf, 160 pp., $21.00

Now, in 2017, we have reached the point where good deeds are not enough. We need evidence of miracles. And Didion’s publisher Knopf has answered the call: 47 years ago, they claim, Saint Joan predicted Trumpism. South and West, the clairvoyant work in question, is not a new book by Joan Didion. It is not even an old book by Joan Didion but a collection of her reporting notes. Set in large type on small paper, it nevertheless runs only 128 pages, of which the final fourteen (which account for the whole of the West section) have already appeared in The New York Review of Books. The rest—South—are excerpts from a notebook Didion kept over the course of a 1970 reporting trip through Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. This trip was undertaken, she says, with no particular or official purpose, but only to “try to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.”

The picture, she tells us, is of a Gulf Coast that was “for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” Didion flies to New Orleans. She drives zig-zags across the southern interstate. She visits snake pits and attends dinner parties and sits for a long time with sad women in a hot Laundromat. From all of this, she concludes precisely what she suspected all along: The South, far more than efficient and artificial California, is the terrible secret heart of the United States. 

It is this paragraph of insight, according to an introduction by Nathaniel Rich, that constitutes a prediction so incredible as to be miraculous, the thing that required the publication of South and West today. All of rubes believed that America was improving, becoming more tolerant and urban and progressive. Not Joan. All the way back in 1970 she visited the American south and saw what was for everyone else finally confirmed in November of 2016: We are regressing, into the anger and decay and bigotry of old Dixie. Saint Joan knew all along.

This miracle is not, however, the only rationale we have been given for South and West. The book also serves the more mundane needs of beatification. It allows the general public to see Didion’s work half-finished, to see her thoughts and drafts—even straight notes. This will disappoint those who anticipated a work on the level of The White Album or even Salvador, but if intended as a scholarly artifact, it is fair enough, as far as it goes. Didion is sufficiently remarkable that even her unpolished work makes for fascinating reading; even if it not always pleasurable, a half-finished draft and the insight it offers into a writer’s process can be immensely valuable to dedicated fans and imitators. (The fact it is also immensely valuable to Knopf—which knows both that Joan Didion books are bestsellers and that Joan Didion has not published a book in six years—is also fair enough, as far as that goes.)

South and West, then, is offered to us as a two-way mirror: the past gazing miraculously into the present, and an opportunity for us the present to examine the writer’s formation in the past. Reading the book, however, it is difficult not to feel these two aims contradicting one another. Didion never finished her southern project, and her prose is not all that remains incomplete here. During slightly over one month driving around Dixie, what does she find? Didion’s south is decaying. It is resentful and defensive, characterized by “the solidarity” engendered “by outside disapproval.” It is haunted, “another time” where “the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as it were about three hundred years ago.” The water does not move and neither do the people. It is hot and still and idle. The South is hopeful about its prospect but made malevolent by reality, “heavy” with death, like a “pre-Columbian city” being swallowed up by the menacing wilderness. Visiting Ole Miss, Didion observers that “in the university bookstore, which appeared to be the one place in Oxford to buy a book…the only books available other than the assigned texts were a handful of popular bestsellers and a few (by no means all) novels by William Faulkner.” Didion’s South isn’t just provincial. It’s illiterate.

The men are demented. The women are somnambulant and sad. The scenery is all mosquitos and kudzu and mud, devastation and thick air. The labor situation is feudal, industry negligible, and boy, oh boy, is it racist. The book has no structure other than chronology, and is full of repetition. The ideas that do emerge are largely sketches, sometimes quite literally placeholders. Many pages consist of straight, undifferentiated scenic description, mostly of whatever sights were visible from the highway. “The idea of…” appears as a frequent predication, followed by an image like ‘water moccasins,’ elaboration forthcoming. 

The trouble here is not that Didion takes a negative view of her subject, but that Didion’s Gulf Coast is a product of the romantic imagination, and if it differs from any southern gothic drama, it is not in its tropes but in its lack of sentimentality. If it is supposed to be a great insight into the character and destiny of the South, it is an insight nearly every America author who came before Joan Didion had first.

I do not raise all of this in order to call Didion’s fortune-telling project a failure. In order to fail at that, she would have shown an ambition to prophesy in the first place, and nothing in this book indicates that she actually did. The reporting trip was exploratory and preliminary. The whole business of “seeing the future” is just the imposition of an over-zealous foreword written in service of a marketing department. Knopf, evidently, does not really believe that South and West is valuable enough to move units solely as a literary curio.

Yet that is precisely and exclusively where the value of this notebook lies. Didion’s greatest accomplishment, perhaps, is her capacity to appear entirely unvarnished in her published works, despite her obvious and often-celebrated stylistic mastery. This is as much a projection of personality as anything else. One believes, especially in her early essays, that the Joan Didion on the page is the Joan Didion who exists in the world: a terminally cool introvert, whose style was as naturally iconoclastic as her mind. That this view is a little silly given the slightest bit of critical reflection (“I am unadorned and profoundly exposed, sensitive enough to weep at gold light through a New York apartment window” insists the young writer, leaning out the window of her new Corvette Stingray, smoking a cigarette) only speaks to the extent of Didion’s accomplishment. Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.

South and West lets us see Didion the author building Didion the character, as she starts drafting her latest set of observations. Forty years ago, the critic Barbara Grizzutti Harrison observed that among all Didion’s techniques, she was most fond of what Harrison called the “Al Capone-sweet Williams” trick. “If, for example, I put Al Capone and sweet williams in the same sentence, I can be fairly sure that a certain number of readers will be jolted by the juxtaposition” Harrison wrote in her essay on Didion titled “Only Disconnect,” and commented on some examples:  

“In the years after Luis was shot water hyacinths clogged the culverts at Progreso.”

“Hear the doomed children celebrate all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.” (Doomed is the trick word here.) 

“Look at the slut on Easter morning. Marin had a straw hat one Easter, and a flowered lawn dress.” (Slut/flowered lawn: it works.)

“What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.” (What makes those sentences work? I ask. Cadence, I answer. What do those sentences mean? You may ask. Don’t.)

In South and West, you can study this scaffolding, at the moment it’s being constructed. For every example of polished Didion, there is also false start, a phrase like “the sense of sport being the opiate of the people”, which sounds like an undergraduate straining for wit. There are sentences referring back to people and places we have not actually seen yet, and sentences followed by three stabs at a simile, the best to be chosen later. You can even see the beginnings of a Capone-sweet Williams trick. “[The radio] played ‘America the Beautiful’ with an angel choir,” Didion tries. “It was Sunday. Here and all over were the trailer sale lots with signs that said REPOSSESSIONS, the trailers bearing plates from all over the South.” Didion hasn’t got Sunday and the angel choir into the same sentence with the repossessed trailers yet, but you can see where she’s headed.

So too with Didion’s personality. In her celebrated works, Didion-the-character is a snob, but only a minor one. She knows clothes and flowers and the names of hotels, but finds all of them slightly sinister. She is aspirational and skeptical but not to the point where her authority might be called in a question, occasionally troubled by obscure maladies of the heart but always, always, in control. The Didion who appears in South and West is familiar, but unpolished. She openly wonders—in a throwaway comment—whether growing up in the south would have led her to homicide. She finds the “rococo denial” of wealthy southern men’s own sophistication “dizzying”, but has no critical rejoinder to it. In nearly every town Didion visits, she heads for the Holiday Inn, the “only” place to get a decent meal, even though she is invariably recognized as an outsider.

During an afternoon with a rich man and his family, Didion speculates that in order to become a professional success, the man’s wife was forced to give up everything traditionally pleasurable to women, namely cooking and interior decorating. This is not accompanied by any kind of cultural criticism, and occurring, as it does, in a section wherein Didion frequently confesses a desire to flee to the nearest airport and return to California, the only discernible lesson is that unlike that Southern doctor, Joan Didion never has to choose. 

Near the end of the notebook, she tells us that this trip has proved so confounding that it has robbed her of her ordinary competence. She covered nothing, met nobody, did none of her “reporting tricks,” she says. This is the beginning of the ordinary way Didion conceals her own work, the way, in her finished essays, that she manages to appear so effortlessly cool that her critical precision feels like an accident of genius. But in South and West, we’ve already seen all the work. We’ve read nearly one hundred pages of interviews and observations and reporting tricks. We’ve seen, in short, Didion the actual writer.

It is precisely because South and West reveals so much about Didion’s creative process that it would be foolish to read this book as a prophetic work, driven by pure intuition about where the country was headed. We get to look at Joan Didion’s work in progress, to see how much went in to her reporting, to feel how enormous the effort necessary to convert her initial observations into the remarkable essays that have secured her spot in the canon. The artistry of her writing underscores the fact that everything beautiful is contingent and developed. Even its truth is in some sense artificial, since nothing is inevitable: not good writing, not fascinating authors, not the south, not history, not Donald Trump.

Joan Didion did not predict our political destiny because our destiny, like South and West, was not yet determined then. Around the same time that Joan Didion took her journey south, she reported in one of her most famous essays that, despite the tendency of writers to live “by the imposition of a narrative line,” she had begun “to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” The notion that a sufficiently keen intellect can look at a region of the country and thereby intuit the shape of its future is surely one of those stories. It makes us feel that the world has not grown too chaotic or unpredictable. “I never wrote the piece,” Didion says at the end of Notes on the South. I cannot help but wonder if this rejection of easy prophesies was why.