Noonday Press, 1968
This book of essays has been on a mental list as a must read for years. Aside from the usual reasons of not reading it due to time issues, the deeper reason I avoided it was because I also believed it a tad too intellectual and brainy for me. Didion is a member of the New York intellectual literati and I was afraid the holes in my mid-level education would become apparent and too hurtful to my ego.
What I found was an interesting, intellectual terrier. Didion is a hunter of words and ideas that she will latch onto and be as tenacious as the dog biting your heel. She’s a muller and when she latches onto an idea she stews. The first essay is a retelling of a contemporary love triangle in California’s San Bernardino Valley. It’s the 1960s, the verge of a sea change in American society, and the prominent wife of a dentist is tried for his murder though it is also argued there was no murder, only a series of unfortunate events.
To Didion the trial was a reflection of the time’s view of women, their choices in life, the selling of the American Dream in their new, expensive tract house, and more. An ending essay ruminates on similar subjects through the building of mansions on Newport Beach and more. There is always more for Didion to pull from an event. Perhaps a wreckage, a promise, parable, a warning. She peers to the root causes and wonders, hypothesizes, and sometimes determines.
Her first essay of the doomed marriage oddly, though probably purposely, reflected the tract of houses of California to its intrinsic character to the mansions of Newport Beach and how they also enclosed and defined women.
Several of the essays are personal explorations of herself that sometimes saw the point made by others, agreed with parts of it, but officially … well, she’s going to be Joan Didion. To that end she allows her version of an event may not be what happened at all. It is a writer’s lesson that the personal view of one’s life and events is all that can stir an individual’s capacity to relate it and understand it. In On Keeping a Notebook she writes of the importance of documenting thought and wonders like I do of notes I’ve made. Why did she have a recipe for sauerkraut in her notebook? The essay meanders to the need to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not.”
I discovered Didion is a California girl who ruminated on New York living. She believed when she lived there in her twenties that others like her were on “an indefinitely extended leave.” She did return to California, believing she needed to return to her roots to discover more about herself. The essays are of their time, ending in 1967, but the breadth of view of that time was worthwhile.
In the end, I know I never would have made it in New York’s literati, but my mid-level education proved adequate in understanding and appreciating her inspiration from a W.B. Yeats poem of the human burden and self-destruction in desiring a Second Coming, in his words, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”