In the summer of 1970, at about the time of the release of her novel Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion spent a month driving through the Gulf Coast states with her husband John Gregory Donne hoping to discover a magazine piece to write. In 1976, Rolling Stone sent Didion to San Francisco, hoping she would report on Patty Hearst’s trial. Neither hope materialized into publication. Now Knopf, in South and West, has issued selections of notes Didion took and passages she drafted on these trips. The bulk, 102 versus 13 pages, come from the first.
After Roger Federer won Wimbledon, a friend in western Massachusetts e-mailed his pleasure at having lived at the same time as Federer. I agreed and added his name to a list of artists about whom I felt similarly: Woody Allen (through Deconstructing Harry); John Coltrane; Bob Dylan; and Didion. I imagine her inclusion on this list could raise eyebrows, but, to me, she is a no-brainer. There is no other writer who – word-by-chosen-word – sentence-by-crafted-sentence – through fiction and non- — raises in me the same level of admiration and delight.
I can only read a few pages of her at a sitting. Her prose has been so finely honed I feel I am ingesting needles and pins. On any page, I can be caught, mid-paragraph, to suck in breath. Any moment I can be sent scurrying to my desk, hoping to apply what I have ingested to my work in progress.
South and West is not great Didion. Any Didion is welcome by me; but, others be warned, so was Dylan’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” And the book’s prime marketing point, that reading her “then” will inform the understanding of our “now,” bears weight that would not crack an egg.
In fact, what engaged my mind the most was the photograph on the back of the book jacket. There is a traditional author’s photograph – Didion at 82 – on the lower portion of the inside rear flap. Then there is this. Didion is seated, nearly full-figure. She wears a loose-fitting, long-sleeved top and skirt. Her hair which, in other photographs from this decade is cut straight and collar-length, falls wavy, soft and loose, to her right breast. The “certain sadness,” reported in newspapers of the time, is absent. Her smile, though slight, is real. She seems not the “strikingly frail,” “mousy” waif, as she was customarily described. She is not the cigarette-clutching, “slight and troubled-looking” author pictured on the back of Lays. Her almond eyes stare at the camera (and reader) with confidence. All signs of the nausea and migraines, the vertigo and nervous breakdown, about which she had previously written, are gone. She is gorgeous.
Leaning against Didion’s left hip, squeezed into her left arm is her only child, Quintana. If, as seems likely, the photo was taken the summer of the trip to the gulf – a trip during which she was seemingly left behind — Quintana would have been four. Her smile is wider than her mother’s. Her blonde hair is shorter and unstyled. She wears a flowered dress. Of course, as readers of Didion know, Quintana died in 2005. And Donne, with whom Didion toured the south, died two years before that. I had wondered, following those losses, how Didion could go on.
I found myself even more startled by Quintana’s presence in the photo than I was by Didion’s radiant appearance. I found that presence enveloping my mind more than any of the text.
“It is about an unfinished journey,” Adele said. “Didion never finished her articles. She never finished the journey with her husband. She will never become a grandmother. Quintana will never have a child.”
Then Adele reminded me of the family from which I came.
When my four-year-old sister died, my parents put all photos of her away and did not display them publicly again. This behavior, which, it seems, I took as the gold standard for grief management, was not free of adverse consequences. And losing a child when you are barely middle-aged, I imagine, differs from losing an adult daughter when you are a senior citizen.
I recognize, too, I have no idea what photographs are, at all times, in Didion’s Manhattan apartment.
Her choice has been not to memorialize the present on her book’s cover but a golden moment from her past. That anchors her against the sucking hole. “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” was the title of her collected non-fiction. We keep pictures too.
Few have a written record to equal Didion’s.
Fate pays that no regard.