At twenty-one and far from comfortable with mortality, I took a class on “medical anthropology” which introduced me to the work of both Arthur Kleinman and Joan Didion. You’d have no non-academic reason to find yourself holding a copy of The Illness Narratives, but Didion’s work felt more urgent and universal.
Our class studied The Year of Magical Thinking (a memoir) as a case against the sterile western-medical conceptualization of death as absolute. Didion wrote about losing her husband and the anguish that overcame her in the following year, where she names her thought processes as “magical thinking,” in that she could will him back to life in both imagination and disbelief. The story reads less as grieving iterations than as her ability to capture the human experience and convey a (perhaps) universal anxiety of confronting death.
After reading Magical Thinking, I wanted to submerge myself in the way she explored the world. Her writing was so effortlessly elegant. In Play It As It Lays and Run, River, she posed existential questions through the mouthpieces of Californian characters who had wildly distinctive visions of the American Dream. Didion portrayed an intricate picture of sadness obscured by the ruse of wealth, and anxiety caused by and inextricably inseparable from California: its winds, her caprice, and its heat, her gravitational pull.
Her aesthetic, in casual clauses, alarming self-awareness, and acute honesty evoke romantic images of classical Hollywood with protagonists who lounge languidly on crisp white sheets in silk robes with the elemental cigarette protruding from their rouged lips. Attractive in its luxurious interpretation of modern life and astute comprehension of both love and loneliness, her work is universal in that she does not simply portray opulence; she also tackles its vacancy.
And Didion does so with a discreet insight into the human condition that is self-referential, provocative, and seeking to both ask and answer her most private questions at once. She simultaneously reigns in her melodramatic edge in the brutal curtness of her depictions. She draws on the idea of “nothingness” and questions the concept of morality yet continues to provide colorful descriptions of an intense drive to be alive (equally portrayed alongside the ubiquitous atrocities of the 1980s).
“He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”
― Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
Her words re-invented quotidian conventions to me, as did her selection of which moments she deemed vital enough to be preserved in writing. While reading her literature feels so intimate, I am not the first to embrace Joan Didion as brilliant. Vanity Fair calls her a “Legend,” for one dependent clause published in Life Magazine, stating that she and her husband were vacationing in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce.”
How could someone come to terms with publicizing such vicious honesty? Maybe the brilliance of her work isn’t that Didion’s image relies on her “coolness,” but her fallibility—and acceptance thereof.
In the documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” reviewed in the Times and directed/produced by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, she reveals a fragility and depth that can perhaps only be known to someone who has lost both a husband and a daughter. Throughout the film, the director makes a recurring pan-out to her bookshelves, which are overflowing with hundreds of volumes of inspiration. In particular, there was an abundance of Hemingway, who she named in an interview in the Paris Review.
This muse may be accountable for the “coolness” of her writing, embodied masculinity, the easy-going guy’s girl. Her characters drink whiskey straight up, are modest with punctuation, and at times I felt caught between labeling her female protagonists as manic-pixie-dream-girls or gender-subversive, although she creates an appeal to being either. Ultimately, though, it is her women that are able to grasp the richness of life, even while acknowledging it as transient. In the face of desperation, she offers startling ambivalence:
“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
― Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
Time magazine published an article on how to cope with a fear of death, which suggested that human mortality is beneficial for the human species, given that we are creative beings. With no ultimatum, what would be our incentive to begin to make a meaningful “mortal oeuvre?” In the books that I read, Didion never confronted this question, but her own prolific collection of works may provide anecdotal evidence to support the theory.
If melancholy and nothing else, she provides one rationalization of mortality, which should be considered in the context of her own loss, but still offers a comforting refrain of choosing to be at peace with the status quo, understanding those who fear death and yet not living in existential crisis. And while tackling loss in her literature, her ingenuity and unique perception of mortality ultimately make her own work, and the name “Didion,” eternal.
Featured Image from 3:AM Magazine