A Joan Didion Primer
Don’t miss these seven essential books by the author.
Joan Didion published 22 books during her lifetime, beginning with Run River in 1963 and ending with Let Me Tell You What I Mean in 2021. Here are seven of the most evocative, a guide to the writer at her most vivid.
Didion’s debut is a masterful first novel about Sacramento—and California—on the cusp of change. Beginning and ending in 1959, it cycles back to 1938 to portray the marriage of Everett McClellan and Lily Knight McClellan, a star-crossed couple. Alienated from themselves and from each other, they face the slow collapse of the ranch life they have long known on the Sacramento River as it is subsumed by real estate development and the rise of postwar California, in which the old ways and traditions are destined to be not only lost but also erased.
This may be Didion’s urtext, a groundbreaking collection of essays and reported pieces that together form a collage composite of California, and the United States, in the 1960s, when the narratives that many of us once believed held us together were revealed—at first slowly and then all at once—to have fallen apart. “The center was not holding,” she begins (referencing William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”) the astonishing title effort, which traces the underside of Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. Here, Didion hones her outsider persona, her cool ironic distance. A ruthless and beautiful piece of work.
This epigrammatic novel portrays Maria Wyeth, an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown who finds solace (if we can call it that) driving the freeways of Los Angeles in a fugue. “She drove it as a riverman runs a river,” Didion writes, “every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions.” Maria is a prototypic Didion character, a puppet severed from her string. “To look for ‘reasons,’ ” she insists, “is beside the point.”
Didion’s second book of essays is a monument to narrative collapse, beginning with the title piece: a pastiche of fragments, including her own psychiatric evaluation. “It will perhaps suggest the mood of these years,” she writes, “if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a ‘house blessing,’ which…had the effect on me of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of ‘ironic’ detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found.”
The finest of Didion’s novels, this is also the most playful, with a narrator named Joan Didion who appears to be writing about people she knows. Those include Inez Victor, daughter of a storied Honolulu family; her husband, Harry, a senator with presidential aspirations; and Jack Lovett, an intelligence officer. As in her other writing of the period, Didion describes U.S. geopolitics with a savage wit. “Perhaps,” she writes, “because nothing in this situation encourages the basic narrative assumption, which is that the past is prologue to the present, the options remain open here.”
Generally regarded as the first of Didion’s three memoirs, this is more a family history of California, in which she deconstructs the myth of California exceptionalism, among other narratives on which she was raised. Such a process becomes perhaps most trenchant in the book’s critique of Run River, which, 40 years later, she has come to see as marked by “something that was not true, a warp, a persistent suggestion that these changes brought about by World War II had in some way been resisted by ‘true’ Californians.” Here we see the author at her most penetrating, not least in regard to her own earlier naïveté.
I have mixed feelings about this book—in part because of how it changed the way we think of Didion, reframing her as a memoirist instead of a reporter, when of course she was both of these and more. At the same time, in its evocation of mourning, the work achieves a brittle grace. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” Didion begins this account of the aftermath of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the decline of their daughter, Quintana, who died just before the memoir appeared. Those lines remind us that, in its immediacy and intractability, grief is necessarily static, a state of being rather than a state of mind.