Sunday, October 09, 2005

Life Class—Joan Didion Reveals How She Endured Loss

"I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself."

from The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

It is not for nothing that John Leonard says of Joan Didion's writing, "...I've been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours. It's something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, ice pick laser beams, or waves. Even the space on the page around these sentences is more interesting than could be expected, as if to square a sandbox for the Sphinx."

I'm not a sophisticated or critical reader. I haven't read most of the books that comprise the canon of Western literature. I have only a passing familiarity with new publications. Instead of reading books themselves, I often satisfy my curiosity about titles by reading reviews of those that interest me.

But I know, on an intuitive level, what Leonard means about the inherent eloquence of Didion's writing. For a long time I had a copy of her classic 1968 collection of essays titled, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It wasn't until about fifteen years ago, however, that I actually cracked the spine and read it. I couldn't put it down. Soon, I'd read all of her books. But, I went back again and again to favorite essays in both Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Something in them resonated for me. Maybe it's because each of them focuses on the cultural currents of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I've always been drawn to the political, social, and cultural upheaval of the period.

Once, when I was working in a bookstore in Washington, D.C., where I still live, Didion stopped by. She was in town for a book signing. I'd been rereading a favorite essay from Slouching called "Goodbye to All That." It's basically the story of her experience of New York City during the early 1960s. Seeing this literary hero disrupted my equilibrium. There in front of me stood the sagacious voice of an era. Goodbye to All That tells the story of an evolving love affair between a person and a place. Arriving as a young woman from her hometown of Sacramento, California, Didion submits to the mythic images and rhythms of the city that have formed in her imagination. Her essay begins—

"It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was.

...Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots—the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.

I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white as far as I could see up Park Avenue and I had a new dress and it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.

It would be a long while because, quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month . . .. Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about . . . .I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of them would count."

Eight years later, however, she is nearly immobile from intense depression. Ultimately, her wonder at the place turns to disillusion.

"I suppose that a lot of us who have been very young in New York have the same scenes in our home screens. I remember sitting in a lot of apartments with a slight headache about five o’clock in the morning. I had a friend who could not sleep, and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained in the night? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals. The White Rose bars opened very early in the morning; I recall waiting in one of them to watch an astronaut go into space, waiting so long that at the moment it actually happened I had my eyes not on the television screen but on a cockroach on the tile floor. I liked the bleak branches above Washington Square at dawn, and the monochromatic flatness of Second Avenue, the fire escapes and the grilled storefronts peculiar and empty in their perspective...

Some years passed, but I still did not lose that sense of wonder about New York. I began to cherish the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing. I liked walking, from the East River over to the Hudson and back on brisk days, down around the Village on warm days. A friend would leave me the key to her apartment in the West Village when she was out of town, and sometimes I would just move down there, because by that time the telephone was beginning to bother me (the canker, you see, was already in the rose) and not many people had that number. I remember one day when someone who did have the West Village number came to pick me up for lunch there, and we both had hangovers, and I cut my finger opening him a beer and burst into tears, and we walked to a Spanish restaurant and drank bloody Marys and gazpacho until we felt better. I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world.

...You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.

I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is that it was very bad when I was twenty-eight. Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. I could no longer sit in little bars near Grand Central and listen to someone complaining of his wife’s inability to cope with the help while he missed another train to Connecticut. I no longer had any interest in hearing about the advances other people had received from their publishers, about plays that were having second-act trouble in Philadelphia, or about people I would like very much if only I would come out and meet them. I had already met them, always. There were certain parts of the city that I had to avoid. I could not bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings (this was a particularly inconvenient aversion, since I then lived just fifty or sixty feet east of Madison) . . . .I could not go to Times Square in the afternoon, or to the New York Public Library for any reason whatsoever. One day I could not go into a Schrafft’s; the next it would be the Bonwit Teller.

I hurt the people I cared about, and insulted those I did not. I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other. I cried until I was not even aware when I was crying and when I was not, I cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries, and when I went to the doctor, he said only that I seemed to be depressed, and that I should see a “specialist.” He wrote down a psychiatrist’s name and address for me, but I did not go.

Instead I got married, which, as it turned out was a very good thing to do but badly timed, since I still could not walk on upper Madison Avenue in the mornings and still could not talk to people and still cried in Chinese laundries. I had never before understood what “despair” meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year. Of course I could not work. I could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty, and I would sit in the apartment on Seventy-fifth Street paralyzed until my husband would call from his office and say gently that I did not have to get dinner, that I could meet him at Michael’s Pub or at Toots Shor’s or at Sardi’s East. And then one morning in April (we had been married in January) he called and told me that he wanted to get out of New York for a while, that he would take a six-month leave of absence, that we would go somewhere [else]..."

Didion stood in front of me, her fingers holding a pen poised above a small stack of books and her eyes protected by sunglasses with lenses so large as to shelter her entire face from recognition or scrutiny. I said that I'd recently read "Goodbye to All That" again, and that it was my favorite of the pieces in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I too had come from California to live in a large city with an east coast identity, I said. She nodded and smiled and said, "Ah, really?"

After she left, and when the rest of the staff had scattered to other parts of the store, I read her inscription. On the title page, she wrote: "For Michael—'Goodbye to All That' is in all of us from California."

Last week, Didion's new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was released nationwide. The book chronicles a year spent acculturating to life without her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, who died suddenly of a heart attack at their dinner table on December 30, 2003. The title alludes to the state of delusion our minds adopt to shield our hearts from despair. Didion's exquisitely tailored prose articulates thoughts and instances of desperation familiar to all of us. As she became fully conscious of his death, and the realization that her husband would not be accompanying her home from the hospital where his body had been transported, she writes, "I was trying to work out what time it had been when he died and whether it was that time yet in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)"

The armature for Magical Thinking is the successful marriage these two writers shared. For more than forty years, Didion and Dunne worked side-by-side, sometimes collaborating on screenplays, but more often crafting their own literary masterpieces. Their marriage was rocked by intense emotional crises; each one struggled at different times with mental exhaustion and breakdown. They, along with their daughter Quintana Roo, formed a core of strength for the other. Some of the most moving passages in Magical Thinking are those that reveal the elemental connectedness Didion and Dunne shared. Theirs was a partnership worthy of admiration and emulation.

Didion writes: "There was nothing I did not discuss with John. Because we were both writers and both worked at home, our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices. I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage."

Some writers inspire a fanatical devotion among their readers. Maybe it's because we're both from California and I've imagined some mystical connection between the two of us that I feel a certain affinity with Joan Didion. I discovered her writing long after she entered the pantheon of American writers celebrated for their incisive insight into the cultural rhythms we move to. I've waited with eager anticipation for The Year of Magical Thinking. I devoured it in excerpts and have dog-eared pages in the book, and scribbled notes near favorite passages.

The Year of Magical Thinking is not a sentimental memoir. It is an intelligent and thoughtful examination of death and how one person resolved to understand its devastating and natural effects on her life. And while there is an undercurrent of despair, Didion's storytelling is also infused with humor. Just like our own lives, her story reflects the delicate balance between pathos and joy.

Didion's book reminds us that we're all susceptible to magical thinking. After all, at the moment of waking, as our mind makes the decisive and instantaneous shift from the gauzy precincts of sleep to the clarity of real-life and real-time, our world is intact and undisturbed; every aspect of it serene, balanced. The mind restores, however briefly and sweetly and with seeming protective instinctiveness, our losses and erasures.

Photography, top to bottom: Joan Didion, Associated Press Photo, 1977; a picture by Eugene Richards captures the dynamic cacophony of New York City; Mies van der Rohe's and Philip Johnson's Seagram Building photographed by Ezra Stoller, 1958; a New York City tenement building photographed by Eugene Richards; Joan Didion photographed by Anne Fishbein in Los Angeles, 2003; Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne, photo from the collection of Joan Didion Dunne; John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion photographed by Mary Ellen Mark, 1996; Joan Didion photographed in New York City by Eugene Richards, 2005; pens and a personalized note pad on a desk in Didion's New York City home photographed by Eugene Richards, 2005.