Joan Didion Was Our Bard of Disenchantment

The prolific writer, who died today at 87, was a penetrating anthropologist of American myths.

Portrait of Joan Didion
Kathy Willens / AP

In 1988, Joan Didion joined a scrum of reporters on the tarmac of the San Diego airport to witness the writing of the first draft of history. The assembled journalists were trailing the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. She was trailing the journalists. Didion watched as a baseball was procured, a staffer tossed the ball to the candidate, he tossed it back—and as the cameras dutifully captured the exchange. She watched as presidential fitness was redefined as athletic prowess with the consent of the national media—as the myths that shape, and limit, Americans’ sense of political possibility were manufactured in real time. She documented the moment in an essay for The New York Review of Books. It was titled “Insider Baseball,” and it has since been, like so many of Didion’s essays, so widely imitated that its innovations can be easy to overlook. But the piece was singular, and scathing: a collective profile of, as she wrote, “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

Didion died today at 87, still one of this moment’s most debated and admired and consequential writers. Thinking about her wide body of work—essays, novels, memoirs, pieces of criticism, each with their own tendrils and limbs—I keep coming back to “Insider Baseball,” because it captures something so essential about her approach. She was a storyteller who rejected mythology. She had no patience for the pablum sold in the hectic American marketplace: bootstraps, merits, salvations. Her most common subject, instead, was entropy. And her second-most-common subject was grief. She observed the world that was, even as she mourned the world that might have been.

The first line of “The White Album,” Didion’s partially autobiographical account of L.A. in the 1960s, goes like this: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What is sometimes forgotten is the series of lines that comes after it. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices,” she writes, in part. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Readers today might chafe at all these strident assessments declared on their behalf: Who is “we” here, exactly? But humans’ desire to make the world meaningful is a species-level seduction. Our craving for story is elemental, and therefore inescapable. Didion’s work may be easy to romanticize—I read her speech turned essay “Why I Write” when I was young, and her account of the world as a series of pictures that “shimmer around the edges” still evokes the old tenderness—but her project was distinctly anti-Romantic. She looked into herself, yes. She wrote “On Self-Respect” and “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping a Notebook” and other works that are sometimes recycled, today, as silk-screened wisdom. But even in the more sentimental of her writings, her own emotions were not the end of her stories. They were the beginning. She was her own data point.

Her coolness had a double valence. See, in one shot, the portrait of her as a young woman, posed in front of that Corvette Stingray, her cigarette dangling from her fingers, her face frozen in an insouciant glare. But she directed the coolness inward as well. She interrogated her own perceptions with the stoicism of a scientist. She was, one might say, a misplaced modernist. She learned her craft in part by rewriting Hemingway’s stories on her typewriter, trying to train her tendons into his rhythms and arrhythmias. She expanded the possibilities of what language could do, not just in the techniques-of-fiction-applied-to-nonfiction way of New Journalism, but also in a starker sense: Her words lodge and stab and scar. They itch. They hurt. Her work acknowledges the power that stories have to shape reality; her sensibilities were thus also squarely postmodern. In the clinical precision of her prose, she captured the cellular intimacy of narrative, the hold it can have on the soft tissues of the human heart. But she also instructed readers to resist “the imposition of a narrative line.” She doubted herself, and wanted us to doubt her too. When she talked about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, she wasn’t offering a gauzy pronouncement. She was issuing an indictment.

That brand of jaded realism—that roving frustration with fictions that claim to be transcendent truths—is part of the reason her work has remained so urgently relevant, over an improbable number of decades. (“You are getting a woman,” Didion writes of herself in “In the Islands,” “who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.”) Optimism, that most renewable of American resources, can crush people as easily as it can buoy them. With an anthropologist’s eye and an artist’s imagination, Didion documented disillusionments and disenchantments—dreams both quick and dead. She named her own regrets and mourned the paths she’d left untaken. She examined her grief. She examined others’ grief too. She wrote about California, the place of her birth and later her chosen home, as dusty and often delirious, her writing conjuring a place where most everything, dreams and cars and homes and people, might be made disposable. Something better will surely be in store, her characters tell themselves, because that is the line they’ve been told. They throw away what they have to make space for what they won’t.

Didion’s writing is cinematic, not because it is sweeping or epic—on the contrary, the typical piece of Didion prose is prickly in its precisions—but because her words are informed by the grammars of film. Didion lived, for a time, in Hollywood; her work lives in Hollywood too. She used jump cuts to get from one moment in time to the next. She was attuned, always, to the framing of scenes. She channeled the camera’s gaze. Her reeling reports can sometimes read as horror. In her book South and West: From a Notebook, she mentioned a man she once dated. “We lived together for some years,” she remarked, “and I think we most fully understood each other when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife.” In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote of a woman whose husband died—accidentally or not, because some things cannot be fully known—in a raging car fire. She observed a 5-year-old girl in Haight-Ashbury whose mother had given her LSD. She made decay visceral. “Adolescents drifted from city to torn city,” she wrote, “sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”

This is not the Instagram-friendly Didion, the Didion of curated quotes and branded iconographies and the $1,200 jacket. It is Didion the journalist, who coined the term Dreampolitik and who insisted on seeing the world as it was. A common, and fair, criticism of Didion is that her coolness sometimes verges on coldness. In The Center Will Not Hold, the documentary about Didion directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, Dunne asks her about that scene in the Haight that would, repackaged as pointillist prose, help to make her famous: 5-year-old Susan, sitting on the floor of her living room, small and vulnerable and tripping on acid. What was it like, Dunne wondered, to witness? One might think, the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead suggested, that Didion would answer as a person—describing a panic she felt, or an impulse to call an ambulance, or the turn of her thoughts toward her own tiny daughter. Instead Didion, the detached observer, plunges the knife: “Let me tell you,” Didion says. “It was gold.”

The line calls to mind Didion’s pronouncement, in “Why I Write,” that writing, with its distances and finalities, “is the tactic of a secret bully.” Didion saw Susan, in that moment, not as a child in need of help, but as an idea in need of expression. “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart,” she writes in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Didion is often, these days, associated with the “I”—the pronoun of memoir, of Romantic tempest, of the self. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” she wrote in “Why I Write.” But, as always, there’s more to the story. (The title of Didion’s final essay collection is deeply ironic and also perfectly apt: Let Me Tell You What I Mean. She will tell you. But she will tell you at length.) The rest of the essay explains what Didion means. She’s talking not about herself to the exclusion of the world. She is simply recognizing that the world will always be refracted through the self.

The first person can be indulgent. It can be incurious, focusing only on the psyche’s chasms and crests. But Didion’s “I” is analytical. She anticipated with striking alacrity the debates that still shape American journalism, among them its ruling class’s assumption that objectivity—the rules-based refereeing of reality—is possible. Didion long ago said goodbye to all that. Her stories doubled as meditations on questions that have only become more urgent: How does one earn the right to tell a story? What does the author owe to her reader in terms of self-disclosure? Whose stories are fair to tell? In her essay “In the Islands,” Didion lets the reader in on the fact that she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, have gone to Hawaii in lieu of getting divorced. “I tell you this not as aimless revelation,” she writes, “but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.”

This is the “I,” strident and lucid and frank. It is an “I” that levels with the reader: Didion’s writings are refracted through the prisms of her many privileges, and she sees no need to pretend otherwise. But hers is an “I” that rejects the sentimentalism of the current American moment. Feel is now a default verb in literary criticism. Donald Trump constructed his political movement from a collection of prefabricated furies. The business models of several of the most powerful companies in the country rely on keeping Americans inflamed and resentful and mistrustful. We live in an era of bad feelings. We live in a time of frayed nerves and fraying stories. We live in a moment that finds our old binding agents dissolving into our poisoned air. Didion saw it coming. She mourned what would be lost. She knew how possible it was, even and especially in the land of golden dreams, for things to fall apart.