Joan Didion’s California | The nation

On the evening of Joan Didion’s death, I went to rummage through my shelves for a copy of Where i came from. I have lived all my life in California, under the weight of its political contradictions and at the height of its ecological dramas, and of all the works of Didion, this one, who proposes to question the founding mythologies of California, her generational ties to the state, and what she sees as its unfortunate decline, seemed the most appropriate to put the author’s death and this place in perspective. Scanning my shelves I saw only the thorns of slumped and The white album, After Henri and Play it , Running the riverand Miami , so I sent a panic text to a friend, a fellow Californian, who lives nearby. “EMERGENCY REQUEST,” I wrote to him, “do you have a copy of Where i came from that I could borrow TONIGHT? She responded within minutes. “I found it,” wrote my friend, “and do you want South and WestAlso?”

Coming home after buying the books, through the low winter fog, the speed and security of this exchange – knowing that another young woman here would have Didion’s writings close and within reach. hand – seemed to me to be some kind of flesh and blood. example of the merging of the author’s legacy with the idiosyncrasies of the Golden State, those she has spent her entire life recounting. I recalled a well-known passage from the middle of Where i came from, where she dispassionately examines the inherited and slightly brutal regional driving: “If my grandfather saw a rattlesnake while driving, he would stop his car and go into the brush afterwards. To do less, he advised me more than once, was to endanger anyone who entered the bush, and thus violate what he called “the code of the West.”

Urban sprawl has since devoured much of the legitimate rattlesnake habitat, including good parts of the grassy swamps of the San Joaquin Delta that the Didions traversed long before the advent of cars. But whatever, wasn’t this network of Jeanne’s devotees a new – probably inevitable – iteration of the “code of the West”? This is what this social fabric has always felt for us, at least, and especially for those of us who showed, in our early teens, a small and tenacious interest in writing.

First of all, the guilty confession of keeping a journal or of wanting to write without having done so. Then came the suggestion, usually from a friend’s mother (these mothers are often themselves from Sacramento, Los Angeles, or San Francisco) that you should read Joan. She is the plan, they all seemed to say in one way or another; Here’s an essay called “Notes from a Native Girl,” and just because you’re from here doesn’t mean you can’t go east to work for a fashion magazine in New York..

The author, however, has made enthusiasts and disciples among many, by far, not just the locals. She possessed, more than any of her contemporaries, the contradictory essence of a pop star: her tracks, like catchy love songs, have the effect of making you feel like she is extracting the raw material. of your soul alone. And, as has been widely noted, pale imitations of his mercurial, melodious phrases – especially those found in early essays, collected in Collapse towards Bethlehem, which address the broad themes of “morality” and “self-respect” – can be identified in countless writings. Who hasn’t tried to replicate his signature rhythm? Didion, in short, made things, for a whole generation, and generations after, cinematographic and possible. That is, Didion’s writing – and also, if not more, the very fact of her – enabled young writers to take their own thoughts seriously enough to write them down.

Yesand as much as Didion’s essays on personal character have become touchstones for countless people who, for good or vain reasons, aspire to a life as a writer, it is his plays on California that shed most light on the rhetorical investments and philosophies of Didion. Starting with his 1968 hit Collapse towards Bethlehem, Didion established a resigned but visceral voice, which attributed feelings like discouragement, madness, and desire to terrain and natural phenomena. In the opening, titled “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” The Atrophy of All Things – this would become one of Didion’s signature obsessions, a core line of his work, in a myriad of pieces on subjects other than California – may be directly related to the start of the fire season:

October is a bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills spontaneously set ablaze. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a cry. It is the season of suicide, divorce and thorny terror, wherever the wind blows.

This essay, at first, is an account of the case of Lucille Miller, the San Bernardino housewife who murdered her husband by setting fire to the car he was sleeping in. But Didion’s ulterior motive, at the start, is to present this violence, in part, as symptomatic of the region. The people of this wasteland just east of Los Angeles, argues the writer, have only the “haunted” Mojave Desert to lean on – and nothing good can come of it. The emotional and aesthetic experiences aroused by the topography of the state reappear in “Notes From a Native Daughter”, where Didion takes stock of the “worried suspension” of Californians, between a deep sense of optimism and loss, for it It is here that the edge of contiguous America meets the dreaded Pacific. End of the continent — end scene. Later in the 1979s The white album —My favorite of the first two collections — we get an essay titled “Holy Water,” in which Didion details his fascination with carrying water throughout the state. “It’s easy to forget,” she writes, “that the only natural force we have control over here is water, and that’s only recently.” Again, there is this identifiable submission to the laws of nature, though, too, this sentence highlights one of Didion’s oft-quoted remarks about his craft: Writing is “the only way to me to be aggressive…. I have total control over this tiny little world. It therefore seems that for Didion, the essay could well be a form whose utility is like that of an aqueduct, bringing, where it is dry and lifeless and undisciplined, something of a total and fruitful thought.

I witness, in the singing shifts of Didion’s sentences, a mirror of the truest tension of Californian life: the embodied paranoia that accompanies the extreme conditions of this place versus the collective ambition, since the arrival of the colonists. , to challenge the natural order. Didion, as she wrote Where i came from , seemed to have strayed from excessive use of such a sonic twist – jerky aphorisms and fragmented scenes still litter its pages, however – but the book offers the clearest articulation of the author of this regional strain. and its origins. In four parts, Didion identifies, analyzes, then weeps the way in which herCalifornia (that is, the California of a multigenerational, landowning clan that has existed since before the Gold Rush) has changed. From the succession of ranches to malls and the devolution of what Didion seems to identify as borderline ethics rationalized into political and social chaos, it is evident that loss and decay haunt this work in spades. The pioneering myths that inhabit the values ​​of her ancestors’ diaries about the crossing to the Golden State, she realizes, can no longer be invoked, but that does not prevent Didion from transforming the compulsion of the settlers to claim a claim in its own indelible, intrusive, and demanding subjectivity. Didion, in other words, by the routine admission of his presence throughout all his writings, claims his subjects and adopts a proprietary bent during the events relayed.

Didion’s deep displays of sentimentality for an early and stolen California made the reading Where i came fromthis first time, yet many years ago, a sobering experience. The unwavering pride she has in her pioneer ancestors smells like someone who has not rigorously questioned their tense and violent bloodlines. All of them, but pushed to the margins, are indigenous peoples, the only ones who have a legitimate right to this land. So it was then, after that first reading, that I no longer saw Joan as the role model – as had been recommended in my early teens – but rather as the starting point. There is, as yet, no one who spells out the moods of this place quite like Didion does. What validation to read passages on the infatuation carried by the fiery winds or on the spiraling helplessness that one feels when looking at empty tanks! But now too, I can know the limits of her thinking without discrediting it entirely, and I can find the courage to pick up where it left off, without reproducing the pride or gloss or nostalgia, and find more ways. wide to face down. the untenable myths of the house. Didion taught us, for example, to write hard about the places we love and allowed us to be a little glamorous while we do it.

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