Nobody wrote about California in the Sixties as well as Didion, with most of her work focusing on San Francisco and L.A., but her first novel, "Run River," was actually a fictionalized novel about her growing up in Sacramento, right after the war, with a war hero father, turned farmer, and life in the valley. I read "Run River" in college and it had a great late Fifties Faulknlker inspired feel to it and was clearly the work of a very gifted writer, but I could imagine finding it on the carouselNobody wrote about California in the Sixties as well as Didion, with most of her work focusing on San Francisco and L.A., but her first novel, "Run River," was actually a fictionalized novel about her growing up in Sacramento, right after the war, with a war hero father, turned farmer, and life in the valley. I read "Run River" in college and it had a great late Fifties Faulknlker inspired feel to it and was clearly the work of a very gifted writer, but I could imagine finding it on the carousel rack of a drugstore, and buying it for 50 cents because it was on the best seller's list and it looked steamy, intelligent, and somehow forbidden, and it was a joy to read, a California central valley epic. I'm sure the bare bones of Didion's thinking on the world stem from "Run River,", not to mention it was about Sacramento, the State Capitol, little else in it could prepare the reader for what was to come from such an amazingly gifted young writer, nor did she ever write a book that long again (I don't think), or in that kind of third person voice reeking of Faulkner and Fitgerald, because the voice Didion found "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and "Play it as it Lays," are completely her own, and something tells me without a lot of thought that she will be remembered as the great prose stylist of the Sixties, and the Queen of the New Journalism that was taking over America, because as great as Hunter S. Thompson is, or Tom Wolfe (at times), none of them had Didion's cold cool yet emotional layered prose that read like poetry more than anything, and seemed like no one else that I've ever read. Her words have a certain feeling of loneliness, alienation, observation, and romance, that just no other writer of the last fifty years really has, or at least not that comes to mind. There is Raymond Carver who also has a very distinct short sentence short story style, and I'd say Didion basically wrote novellas she passed off as novels ("Play it as it Lays"), or put together collections of essay's ("Slouching Towards Bethlehem"), but Carver sounds a little too like Hemingway, just an updated one in academia with the same drinking problems but more emotional vulnerability though hidden by layers of blank page in minimalistic prose, but.... he's not Didion, he's Carver, and I suppose he carved out the Paciifc Coast post Sixties academic teaching and living a failed life, like so many of his generation, but Didion had no academia in her except that she went to Berkeley in the Fifties and did write about it some, but Didion was a "New Journalist," and some of her most memorable work aside from "Play it as it Lays," in this critic's humble opinion, were her pieces on California in the Sixties and her place in it, a middle age favorite daugher, raised on the hopes of the Kennedy era, and looking on sort of bewildered half excited by the Sixties, and half wishing for a simpler time, before Vietnam and drugs, and she literally seems caught in the middle. In "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Didion often sounds like she's in a mission in the Haight Ashbury interviewing the Hippies and really trying to understand them, and they take her in, kind of like how the Hell's Angels took in Hunter S. Thompson, so he could write "Hell's Angels," only to beat the shit out of him at the end for being a spy. Didion has this quality in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," or at least the piece titled that, and she is something of a spy in that great writerly tradition, but she treats the pieces as journalism, and for all I know they came out in "Vogue" before they ever came out in a collection, because she got a job to write for them soon after college, so who knows? Didion was a journalist and a fiction writer, but more importantly a journalist, because her fiction became journalistic, and was never so hyper romantic as "Run River" ever again, whereas Carver's stories never feel journalistic, but seen through a drunk poet's lens.
"Play it as it Lay's" will always be one of my favorite books, that I go back to again and again, but it's not exactly "War and (or) Peace," and I should say reading it in a day does take an awful lot of concentration, because you won't be done in an hour, and yet the writing, structure, and story are so cinematic that it almost deserves to be read in a day, and indeed all of Didion's writing is very visual and I always feel like I'm watching a movie when I read it and that's part of the appeal. "Play it as it Lay's," is about the film industry in the late Sixties, and I'd say the structure has an almost Godard like feeling to it and was deeply influenced by the French New Wave, the scenes are short but poignant, and give you just enough to move the story on, but there is almost no hyperbole, and the sparseness makes Maria's bursts of poetic intensity all the more so because the book is so quiet that you yearn and crave for those paragrapsh that have an almost hallucinatory like feel to explain Maria's insanity, because like Plath in "The Bell Jar" she is going insane. Funnily enough, Didion seems to have lived a Plath like life, though a little younger, but they both were beautiful women living a rather archetypal life and writing about women going insane, but I'm not sure Didion relied on this theme like Plath did, nor did she make her parents her Waterloo. But Maria from "Play it as it Lays" is an unbelivably lost soul and that's how I felt in L.A. when I read it, like I just kind of wanted to drive on the freeway to nowhere in particular, just to lose myself, and never come back again, only to come back, and do it again everyday. Maria's alienation also made sense to me because it was a very Hollywood kind mistaking fantasy for reality and I think the character came to L.A. in the Sixties as a model and liked the groovy lifestyle never thinking that people could be that cruel to each other, but the sex is cold and she's falling out of love, and her career is flailing if indeed it ever started. M spends a lot of time remembering her past in this book and her humble beginnings in Nevada and wonders in the classic "Hollywood Nights" way why she had ever left home because she lost all control. I guess what's crazy about the book is that she manages to paint Maria's isolation and alienation in a very poetic way kind of like Sofia Coppola does in her movies, that are also sparse, and probably heavy influenced by Didion, because both make sadness very stunning but there aren't a lot of laughs in Didion and this also separates her from many of the New Journalists that were practically humoirsts they felt so freed up. I really think "New Journalism" just gave Didion the freedom to write about her own favorite daughter status from another era and juxtaposing it with the one she was in and able to see a great generational vision without the restraint and conceit of fiction.
I realize there is a cult of Didion out there but there wasn't when I first picked out this book from my parents library, and easily my favorite of theirs, by far, and this almost bonded us. No one read her in the universities yet (I have a feeling they do now), and whatever she did was so new that I think people were wondering if she had staying power, or would be relegated to the 'dustbin of history' in Reagan's words. I quickly saw that she was the great writer about the Sixties in California, bringing a real gravitas and seriousness to an otherwise silly era, not that it felt this way, but the art was so silly, that's how we remember it, but not through Didion's eyes. She was one of the most interesting "New Journalist" because she was a woman from a slightly older generation and came at it from a very chic cool waspy sort of nouveau riche way, not to mention she had an identity as a "Vogue" writer the whole time, and this wasn't a Hunter S. Thompson's "Hell's Angel's" perspective on the Sixties, or Tom Wolfe's sort of chameleon like prose that was pop to the core, because there's nothing 'pop' about Didion's style that's eternal, but her subject matter is pop, or scratches the surface to see what's beneath it. I always knew she was one of the best writers but I thought I had her for all my own like a unique discovery, and maybe I did in 1990, but she has been discovered and I'm just another schmuck admiring her prose, like how I used to feel listening to Joni Mitchell when I knew that every asshole was in love with her, not just me. My mother met Joan Didion once in Morton's, where you could imagine her eating, and told her that I went to U.C. Santa Cruz, and like a favorite daughter Didion knowingly wrote to me 'Have a good year up in the gloaming," and how Didion a thought that is. ...more
More fantastic essays from Didion. We were lucky to have her living in So Cal during the 60;s-70's to record the period in her inimitable way. "Driving is a form of secular communion" in L.A. That's what you get with Didion.
Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.
Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.