The Autumn of Joan Didion

The writer’s work is a triumph—and a disaster.
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Joan Didion with her daughter and Abigail McCarthy, Washington, D.C., 1977 (Teresa Zabala/The New York Times/Redux)

In the spring of 2006, shortly after the publication of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Slate assembled a panel of three young critics—Meghan O’Rourke, Katie Roiphe, and Stephen Metcalf—to discuss the book in an event broadcast online from the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York. The two women were staunch Didion fans and admirers of the new book, which they thought portrayed a mesmerizing marriage that had come to a heartbreaking end. Stephen Metcalf, however, considered the book at best an artistic failure, and at worst an example of unintentional high comedy; he described its principals as having “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”

The discussion, then, was a protracted game of Canadian doubles, although Metcalf easily got the better of his competitors, who crumbled under the nonstop assault of his blistering and often unbearably astute insights into the book (“There are some books that shouldn’t be written out of habit—the habit of writing. This was a book produced by habit,” he said).

Shaken, Roiphe defended the canon with the weirdest praise ever (admitting of her heroine that “her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés because we know them so well”). O’Rourke started talking gibberish, praising the book for something she called the “second iteration of the gestural,” and the entire Didion soufflé—which had been slowly collapsing for three long decades—was reduced, on the one hand, to a withering account of its biggest inadequacies, and on the other, to a collection of dubious compliments. But Roiphe tried a new tactic, and—for a brief, exciting moment—the women rallied. She challenged Metcalf to admit that there were certain Didion details so imperishable that any literary mistake she might commit was as nothing when held up against them. For example, Roiphe said, there was “the smell of jasmine—”

“—and the list she put on her suitcase before she left!,” O’Rourke interrupted happily.

Metcalf, confused both by the sudden ardor and by the two examples themselves (where had they come from?), tried to get the discussion back to the failures of The Year of Magical Thinking, but the women doubled down on their strategy, hitting him hard with Honolulu and leis, and with the ravishing sangfroid of checking into the Royal Hawaiian Hotel “in lieu of getting a divorce.”

Metcalf was thrown off his game for two reasons: First, no matter how frantically he paged through his viciously well-read copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, he would not find the jasmine or the packing list. Nor would he have found them in Where I Was From or Political Fictions or After Henry or Miami or Salvador. To find the details that these women loved so well that they remembered them verbatim, he would have had to pass over most of Joan Didion’s extensive nonfiction body of work and go back to the beginning, to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, and to The White Album, in 1979. If you love Joan Didion so much that she fundamentally changed the way you think—and there are many who feel this way—the books that did this to you are those two and no others.

The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.

I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.”

Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures. Thompson’s work was illustrated by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque ink blots, and early Didion by the ravishing photographs of the mysterious girl-woman: sitting barelegged on a stone balustrade; posing behind the wheel of her yellow Corvette; wearing an elegant silk gown and staring off into space, all alone in a chic living room.

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. “I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,” a distinctly non-adolescent female voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.

“A writer is coming to dinner next week,” my father says. “I think you will like her.”

I’m 14 years old and watching TV. “Uh-huh.”

Writers are always coming to dinner. I have no interest in them.

Before the dinner party, I swan around the kitchen while my mother cooks. It’s the beginning of the gourmet revolution. “Daddy thinks you’ll like this writer. She’s young. You should talk to her.”

“Mmm.”

“She has a daughter, too.”

“So?”

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall. My father has never set foot in the mall, and he thinks my attraction to it, and to all that it stands for, is either the kind of charming foible that younger daughters are encouraged to nurture, or else evidence of some serious deficit of intellect and taste that is going to add up to something bad in me. He seems always to be in the midst of making this decision; the result will be very important. I want to be admired by him, but even more I want to see That Darn Cat! in matinee revival at the Sunvalley Mall.

Joan Didion, the writer I was supposed to like, had arrived at Berkeley, her alma mater, to serve as a Regents’ Lecturer, which was a special month-long teaching appointment for people who worked in a field outside academia. As an undergraduate, she had been the star student of Mark Schorer—this was the way she was often referred to during that period in Berkeley: not as a writer but as “Mark’s student”—and he had helped put the appointment into motion, although her C.V., at that point, was slight: two novels and a slender collection of essays. My father was then the chairman of the Berkeley English Department, and so it was my parents’ job to host the welcome dinner.

Business as usual—until she arrived. The immediate impression she gave, patently obvious even to a 14-year-old, was one of a person in misery. I’d once seen a Korean graduate student show up for a faculty dinner party and just about implode from anxiety, but he was a Noël Coward of cocktail-party self-confidence compared with Joan Didion. In the first place—what was she wearing? A Chanel suit, my mother (at once impressed and amused) informed me the next day. It was so clearly the wrong thing to wear to a faculty dinner party in the early 1970s—where were the leotard and the skirt?—so clearly an indication that she was trying to put her best, most grown-up foot forward in the face of all these scary former professors, that it doubled the sense of her being catastrophically unsure of herself.

“She never took her purse off her lap!” my mother said afterward of that night, gobsmacked. “She took it to the dinner table!”

If you had told my mother that Didion regularly served elaborately cooked meals to 60 people at a time, on Spode china in a rambling—and very Berkeley—house in the seedy part of Hollywood, and had interviewed Jim Morrison and entertained Janis Joplin, she would have been shocked. Didion seemed like a young woman who had never been to a dinner party without her parents. She seemed like someone who owned one good thing to wear, and would bravely wear it whenever an engagement even hinted at formality.

I can tell you this for certain: anything you have ever read by Didion about the shyness that plagued her in her youth, and about her inarticulateness in those days, in the face of even the most banal questions, was not a writer’s exaggeration of a minor character trait for literary effect. The contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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