Caitlin MacDougall
October 19, 2015 8:00 am

I’ve given up trying to understand Joan Didion. I know her work, canonized alongside other New Journalism greats like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese, and I know her as a symbol of New York and Hollywood glitterati. She is the volucrine woman featured in French designer Céline’s Spring 2015 collection, wearing her signature black sunglasses over rivers of stunning wrinkles. She is the sylph in the black and white 1970 photograph draped over the driver’s seat of a Corvette, her chin tipped to the photographer, a scaffold of ash at the end of her cigarette. In the winter, I could walk down 57th Street in New York and spot her, hatless and scarf-less, shuffling across the crosswalk in Ugg boots, daring the wind to knock her over.

In his recently released biography of Didion, The Last Love Song, it would appear that Tracy Daugherty wants to help us understand Didion amidst all her personas, her contradictions. It’s a tall order: Didion is a journalist and a novelist, a Californian and a New Yorker. She’s a fashion icon, a liberal, a conservative, an elitist, a bohemian, a confessionary, a recluse, a patient, and a hypochondriac. She is the writer who brought us through the violent disintegration of the ’60s with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the fragility of the ’70s with The White Album, the press’s devouring of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal with Political Fictions in 2001, and her upending grief in her twilight years after the loss of her husband, novelist/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana Roo, in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. And that’s just a sample of her nonfiction.

I’m not sure after reading Daugherty’s The Last Love Song that I understand Didion any better than I did before. And when I say, “I’m not sure,” I mean I’m not sure and that’s OK. I mean that just as I struggled to connect with Didion’s latest treatise on grief, Blue Nights, so I struggled with The Last Love Song. Just as I sometimes felt adrift in minutiae in The White Album, so I felt lost in piles of anecdotes in her biography. But amidst the many names and references, were glimmers of profound intimacy.

The most illuminating passages in The Last Love Song are not about Didion’s spats with Simon and Schuster, her encounters with Sidney Korshak, or the politics of Hollywood. They are her quiet moments with Dunne vacationing in Hawaii, their Malibu parties, her awkward moment with Warren Beatty (“This is not…feasible” she told him in a perfect illustration of Didion-like hedging after he made a pass at her), the poetry Quintana wrote for her when she was in kindergarten (The world/Has nothing/But morning/And night/It has no/Day or lunch/So this world/Is poor and desertid [sic]).

There’s a black and white postcard I keep on my nightstand of Joan Didion and John Dunne. I bought it at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 2011 after having been stunned by Slouching Toward Bethlehem a few months earlier, and it has remained by my bedside ever since. The picture on the postcard is strange. Dunne looks friendly enough, but Didion, resting against Dunne’s shoulder, has her eyes half-closed as if she’s managing her own pain, something she’s written with alarming clarity—the migraines, the immunodeficiency, the depression, and the ever-enigmatic “nerves.”

Like many of her fans, I have been seduced Didion’s glamorous frailty. I also recognize what she did for me as a nonfiction writer, as someone who can’t write a book review without writing about herself. Didion’s essays, and her fiction, are as preoccupied with their subjects as they are with the self. “The only reader I hear is me,” she said once in a 1978 Paris Review interview. The tension between the writer and her story is palpable, and that’s why I trust Didion, even if I don’t always understand her. I keep the postcard next to a black and white photo of my parents.

After A Year of Magical Thinking’s success, many readers found Didion’s personality in readings and interviews baffling. Mark Feeney, a reporter for the Boston Globe, is quoted in The Last Love Song: “[S]he in no way ingratiates herself [with interviewers]. She has a job to do, to answer questions with forthrightness and civility. But she doesn’t make small talk….There’s back and forth, but no around and about.” Readers who are relatively new to the Didion fan club, who imagine a warm and fuzzy expert on the human condition will be disappointed to see how she bristles at sentimentality, just as liberals were shocked to learn that she voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

The Last Love Song is a triumph of a book, in part because Didion is impossible to know. Daugherty’s research is based entirely on her writing, interviews by other reporters, and recollections from family and friends. His preface, aptly titled, “Narrative Limits” warns readers like me: “In the spirit of saying ‘exactly what you’re getting,’ let me lay it out. There is the biographer who promises explanations by threatening to reveal a subject’s secrets, who promises to dish. I am not that biographer.” Like Didion once claimed about herself, Daugherty seems to “belong on the edge of the story.” We may not finish the book knowing any more about Didion, whose work magnificently teeters between the real and the imagined, but we may come to peace with the fact that we’re dealing with, as a social worker at New York—Presbysterian Hospital called her on the night of Dunne’s death, “A pretty cool customer.” Through Daugherty’s respectful distance, we can learn the value of being kept at a fragile arm’s length.

Related:

10 essays that will get you hooked on Joan Didion

(Image via FSG)

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