What struck me first about her was the voice. From the moment I encountered the work of Joan Didion, who died this morning at the age of 87, I was captivated by it—that sly mix of diffidence and knowingness, that sense of standing on the inside and the outside all at once. She broke the rules with impunity, or made up new ones. She was a genius of the passive voice. Her essays were reported but also personal; they appeared to be about the zeitgeist, about politics and California and cultural upheaval, but like all great essayists, she was really writing about herself.

Just listen to that voice assert itself at the start of “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which opens her 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is where I often begin when I think of Didion, and not only because it was the first piece of hers I ever read. In many ways, it’s a signature effort, evoking the almost mythological role place plays in determining identity, or what she would later describe as “a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” For Didion, place was both interior and exterior; the “season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread” belongs to her as much as it does to the people about whom she writes. “Some Dreamers,” then, is essay as passion play, using the murder trial of Lucille Miller, charged with killing her husband, Gordon, by setting fire to the family Volkswagen, to excavate Didion’s own sense of love and loss and longing in a territory where the past is what we put behind us and history is conditional at best.

That this is one of the clichés of California goes without saying, as Didion understood. She also sought, however, to flip the stereotype on its head. For her, the erasure of history, or (more accurately) of continuity, was not what made California enticing but rather the opposite. It was a marker of collapse. I think of the moment in the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” when she encounters a street kid in Haight-Ashbury who wants to travel to New York. “I show him a sign offering a ride to Chicago,” Didion tells us. “He wonders where Chicago is.”

joan didion, hollywood home
At her home in Hollywood.
Julian Wasser

Here, too, place becomes a factor in a larger dislocation, the breakdown of a common set of narratives. That idea—of a culture atomizing—became a key theme in her work. In some sense, this had to do with the 1960s; she was writing, after all, about the Summer of Love in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” But what Didion discovered in the crash pads and squats of 1967 San Francisco was less end point than prologue; it hinted at the fragmentation to come. “The center was not holding,” she begins the essay. “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, 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. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing persons reports, then moved on themselves.”

What Didion discovered in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was a way to think about fragmentation as a literary strategy. The essay works as a pastiche of moments, always circling, never fully adding up, much like the events it is recording. This was, it turned out, a brilliant solution to the central conundrum of her career: how to use narrative to explore its own failings and insufficiencies. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she opens the title essay of her 1979 collection, The White Album. It is one of her most famous, and most misunderstood, lines. Not because it is untrue—we are narrative-making animals adrift in a universe of chaos, in which the only meaning possible is subjective, that which we bestow. But if this sustains us in the short term, Didion knew it couldn’t last. It’s a point she makes explicit with the first sentence of the second paragraph: “Or at least we do for a while.”

joan didion, in golden gate park, san francisco, 1967, while reporting her piece about haight ashbury, slouching towards bethlehem
In Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1967, while reporting her piece about Haight-Ashbury, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
© Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

Pretty much all of Didion’s writing exists, for me, in the middle ground between those two points of reference. Narrative consoles us until it does not. The idea infuses all her work, from the jump-cut urgency of her 1970 novel, Play It As It Lays—a book of barely 200 pages and more than 100 chapters—to the grief-activated memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, of her later years. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.… You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she observes in the first of those books, which begins with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in 2003. Death as the ultimate fragmentation, as the ultimate dislocation. And yet, what do you do if you are the survivor? There is no other option available to you than to go on.

And go on Didion did. Her first book, the novel Run River, was published in 1963; her most recent, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, came out in January of this year. That last book gathered previously uncollected material, including the essay “Why I Write,” with its assessment of the rigor, or the ruthlessness, required by the job. “In many ways,” she insists there, “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

What Didion is offering in that passage is an encapsulation of her aesthetic, in which everything, from reportage to personal experience, is—it has to be—in play. Writer as observer, yes, but also writer as shaper, acknowledging with every word and every sentence the subjectivity of narrative. “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate,” she acknowledges in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

joan didion, contact sheet
© Julian Wasser

Decades later, when I interviewed her onstage in Los Angeles following the publication of Blue Nights, I asked whether, now that she was writing memoir, she was selling herself out. Had her presence become counter to her own best interests? “Absolutely,” she answered. “I was tearing up the only person I knew.”

What Didion was describing there, of course, was vulnerability, which is another conundrum of her work. Behind that cool and distanced persona—the sunglasses, the passive voice, the slipperiness of the pronouns, which move from “I” to “we” to “one” with an elusive grace—she was always revealing herself.

“You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people,” she suggests in her essay “In the Islands,” which appears in The White Album. “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, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.… I have trouble making certain connections. I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point. The point itself seems increasingly obscure.”

There it is again, that sense of place and inner weather. There it is again, that voice. It’s as distinctive as a fingerprint, a way of seeing, a position and a posture in the world. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, in other words.

Or at least we do for a while.•

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.