Why Didion Is Still Great

Recently a friend of mine told me that she'd grown tired of reading Joan Didion. Almost immediately, she corrected herself, saying that this wasn't always true, that sometimes Didion still got her excited and that she was such a masterful writer that even the stuff you didn't like was always admirable. I know what she means, though.

My friend and I are in our 50s, and there are writers that you start out admiring early in life and somewhere along the line you get tired of them. This is a vaguely embarrassing thing to admit, because I suspect the fault is more mine than the writers'. We are so accustomed, in this disposable culture we inhabit, to be always on the lookout for something new. We take writers we've admired for granted, and if they don't change--or, to employ the odious phrase so common in today's critical parlance, "reinvent themselves"--then we assume they have nothing further to tell us.

This is certainly not Didion's problem, but rather, our problem with her. For almost half a century, she has been turning out fiction and nonfiction in that dry, cool, intelligent way of hers. And she was not just admired; she was emulated. It was not so long ago that a generation of journalists went to school on "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The White Album." Nor that long ago that "Play It As It Lays" made anomie a household word. Maybe that was the problem. She was a talented journalist and a good novelist. Maybe it was just too much for people to bear. (Envy has more to do with these matters than we like to admit.) Or maybe after she made such a terrific double-barreled splash with "Slouching Toward Bethleham" and "Play It As It Lays," people expected her to keep making such splashes, and when she didn't they grew bored with her. Certainly, she hasn't gotten worse. The quality began at a startlingly high level and stayed there. It's just that she hasn't ever bothered to do things differently. So after a while, we stop paying close attention. This is a mistake.

Reading Didion's new book, "Where I Was From" (226 pages. Knopf. $23), I was freshly reminded of what an exquisite stylist she is. One beautiful sentence follows another, not one of them calling attention to itself (or requiring repair), and each moving the reader a step closer to the conclusion Didion wants us to grasp. The prose always serves the thought, which in this book is always original and completely free of cliche. Given that the subject is Didion's home state of California, a place that invites cliche the way the apple draws the worm, this is saying a lot.

The chief complaint about Didion is that, like a lot of Californians (and New Yorkers), she is solipsistic, always writing about herself. I've never found this to be particularly true or bothersome. If she does write personally, it is always with a larger point, or point of view, in mind. Somewhere, years ago, I came across a statement from Didion, in which she said something to the effect that if you are going to work in the confessional mode, then you'd better have something truly worth confessing, or you're just going to irritate your reader. Good advice.

"Where I Was From" (odd title, I have to say--is she from somewhere else all of a sudden?) begins like a memoir, but right away, thanks to the quality of the writing, you know this is going to be several cuts above the ordinary, even if she never shifts out of the personal perspective. The first long paragraph, because it lays down such a deft, multilayered road map of what's to come, is worth quoting in its entirety:

"My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott was born in 1766, grew up on the Virginia and Carolina frontiers, at age sixteen married an eighteen-year-old veteran of the Revolution and the Cherokee expeditions named Benjamin Hardin IV, moved with him into Tennessee and Kentucky and died on still another frontier, the Oil Trough Bottom on the south bank of the White River in what is now Arkansas, but was then Missouri Territory. Elizabeth Scott Hardin was remembered to have hidden in a cave with her children (there were said to have been eleven, only eight of which got recorded) during Indian fighting, and to have been so strong a swimmer that she could ford a river in flood with an infant in her arms. Either in her defense or for reasons of his own, her husband was said to have killed, not counting English soldiers or Cherokees, ten men. This may be true or it may be, in a local tradition inclined to stories that turn on decisive gestures, embroidery. I have it on the word of a cousin who researched the matter that the husband, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, 'appears in the standard printed histories of Arkansas as "Old Colonel Ben Hardin, the hero of so many Indian wars."' Elizabeth Scott Hardin had bright blue eyes and sick headaches. The White River on which she lived was the same White River on which, a century and a half later, James McDougal would locate his failed Whitewater development. This is a country at some level not as big as we like to say it is."

This paragraph is, in several ways, the book in miniature: family history as myth, myth as possible bunk ("embroidery") and the steady juxtaposition of the personal and public realm. In the next paragraph, Didion admits that she knows nothing more about this ancestor, but "I do have her recipe for corn bread, and also for Indian relish." She also has a piece of applique that Elizabeth Hardin's granddaughter, Nancy Cornwall, made while crossing the country by wagon, traveling part of the way with the Donner party. The applique, the author tells us, hangs on the wall of her dining room. So we know that the past, the personal past, means something to Didion. She defines herself, at least in part, by who her ancestors were. But we also know that she's suspicious of the stories people hand down. She wants to believe in her people and the stories told about them, but she's suspicious. She's got that knack of balancing two contradictory thoughts in her mind at the same time (F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence, but maybe just the definition of a good historian or journalist). And all this back-and-forthing might be intolerably airy and cute if it weren't for the practical side of Didion's intelligence, which keeps everything nicely grounded--if her theories do go up in smoke, there's always the corn bread and Indian relish.

If you come to "Where I Was From" expecting a conventional memoir, you will be disappointed by a book that spends more time on the Southern Pacific railroad and the Spur Posse of Lakewood, a benighted Los Angeles suburb, than it does on family matters. This is a book about history, about what we learn from genealogy and history books, novels and old newspapers, and how we square all that with what we see around us.

Didion grew up in one of those families that had been in California for several generations, a family that set great store by old things handed down or that were, in some cases, just old. "We lived in dark houses and favored, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken, which was said to 'bring out the pattern.' To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: it looks 'new'." She was also taught, as were many of us who grew up in places where our families had lived for generations, that things weren't what they were, that we had missed the golden age. In California's case, this meant before the lazy, good-for-nothing people moved in, and before unscrupulous leaders with no sense of history, heritage or landscape sold the state to the lowest bidder. This, Didion comes to realize, is a huge lie. People, meaning white people, were selling out California as soon as the first buyers appeared. The past, to the extent that it has weight at all, is usually found expressed in the old, theme-parked sections of otherwise evacuated downtowns. The California myth preaches personal independence and the right to start over (again and again) with a clean slate. It's a myth that won't stand much scrutiny. In fact, as Didion demonstrates on several fronts, California's most time-honored custom has been to deride the government even as it depends on it (the same people who elected Ronald Reagan governor have depended for decades on the government to move water thousands of miles to sustain arid cities like Los Angeles, where these same people depend on defense industry jobs to pay their salaries).

I am stripping Didion's argument of its subtleties, but not its power. If you wonder how California got itself into the mess it's in, start by reading this book. If I have a complaint, it's that she limits what she has to say to California when her argument might well be applied to the whole country. I grew up in the South and I live in the Northeast, and I have yet to see evidence that the past means anything to people except when it is convenient. Where I'm from, rednecks who don't know the name of the governor carry on about heritage when they're defending the right to fly the Confederate flag over the state house.

When I suggest that her long-time readers may have lost interest in Didion because she has so adamantly refused to retool, change course, reinvent herself over the span of her career, I think she would reply that it's a matter of pride with her not to do that. Reinventing themselves, as she proves a dozen ways in her latest book, is one of the ways her fellow Californians have gotten themselves in so much trouble. By sticking to who she is, and by continuing to cast a cold eye on all the suppositions and predispositions that go into that sense of identity, Didion has remained a clearheaded and original writer all her long life. I don't see what else you can ask of someone.