Joan Didion was not just a literary giant.
She was a giant.
She was 5’2”.
She weighed about 100 lbs.
But it’s not about that.
Because her brain weighed a ton.
Joan Didion was a premier author, novelist and essayist who began it all in the 1960s, after winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine.
Didion’s writing during the ’60s through the late-’70s, engaged audiences with her examination of the counterculture’s reality and the Hollywood lifestyle.
But she was deeper than that.
And it started early.
Self-identified as a “shy, bookish child,” she recalled writing things down as early as the age of five.
She endured a peripatetic childhood; her father was a finance officer in the Army Air Corps and the family relocated constantly.
Didion did not attend school regularly, and consequently–as documented in her 2003 memoir, “Where I Was From” — she was made to feel like a perpetual outsider.
Upon graduation from Cal-Berkeley in 1956 with a BA in English, her first-place finish in the “Prix de Paris” essay contest sponsored by Vogue, launched her career.
For Didion, who died December 23rd. at 87, the late-’60s and early-’70s were a time of social and political tumult, unrest, abrupt leave-takings and random violence: see the Manson murders, Altamont and Haight-Ashbury.
That she was eerily and uncannily attuned to the dark undercurrents of the day–the social fissures, fractures and divides fueling carelessness and alienation–speaks directly to why her work resonates so deeply with us today.
Once again we are living in times defined by chaos and uncertainty, and what Didion referred to as “the jitters,” settle in and feast on us, while we agonize over Covid, climate change, police brutality and mass shootings at schools and elsewhere across the landscape.
Sometimes it’s hard not to feel that we are living through another surreal and dangerous iteration of Didion’s America, where “disorder was its own point.”
Congress can not seem to pass legislation wanted by large majorities of people.
Democracy itself is threatened and teetering under the stress of an all-out assault on voting rights, waged by former President Trump and his acolytes.
Doctors and nurses are assailed for dispensing Covid shots, as are school board members for supporting mask mandates.
Didion was remarkably prescient in writing about the shattering of truth, as people increasingly filtered reality through the prism of their own prejudices.
The spawning of misinformation, disinformation, and false narratives.
In 2003 she wrote even more explicitly about how our political process not only spurns consensus, but also works by “turning the angers and fears and energy of the few” against “the rest of the country.”
She prized control–getting the details right in a story, making sure a recipe was followed to a “t” — because her personal life, as someone who suffered from migraines, Parkinson’s and morning dread, was not that way.
“You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle,” she wrote in “The White Album” (1979).
She described herself as “a sleepwalker,” “alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot,” the coyotes by the interstate, the snakes in the playpen.
What she called “the unspeakable peril of the everyday” became a macabre reality for her in December of 2003.
On Christmas Day, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, was diagnosed with pneumonia and the next day developed septic shock.
Days later, her husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, abruptly slumped over at the dinner table, and was later pronounced dead of a massive heart attack.
Quintana would die 20 months later at the age of 39.
Didion and Dunne had always written about their own lives–their marriage, their nervous breakdowns, their work as screenwriters in Hollywood–and she would chronicle her attempts to come to grips with the loss of her husband and daughter in two powerful books, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) and “Blue Nights” (2011).
She wrote that what happened to her family, “cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief.”
Profound, but also common-sense smart.
Joan Didion was just that, and by virtue of God-given gifts, eminently able to put all of it into words, concisely, succinctly, magically and with surgical precision.
She was as close to genius as could be.
“Time passes,” she wrote.
“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms, to what we think we remember.”
May she rest peacefully.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in December 2021.]