Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies

Joan Didion knows that language is not a windowpane. Clarity, yes; transparency, no. To report a fact requires arranging words. That entails expressing an attitude, a point of view. She does not try to hide this: ‘To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence as definitely and inflexibly as the position if a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.’ She has a deadly way with a sentence. She can load a plain statement with a cool, understated depth charge. Reporting on a reunion of veterans of World War II in 1968 (‘Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles’) and noting their effusive nostalgia, she adds ‘Perhaps it was hard to bring the same sense of urgency to holding a Vietnamese village or two that they had brought to liberating Europe.’ 

You get the idea, but it doesn’t mean she is a queen of sardonic innuendo. 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive that exposed official US lies about the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, the meltdown of the Democratic Party among atrocious scenes of police aggression in Chicago. It destroyed Lyndon Johnson and opened the White House door to that shadiest of operators, Richard Nixon. Didion’s prose would have resonated instantly among readers with that violent, shameful context. It digests history. 

This gathering of a dozen of Didion’s previously uncollected magazine essays comprises pieces dated from ’68 to 2000, a period which the New Journalism became an established and high-profile form. Its basic premise was the application of fictional techniques to reportage and cultural commentary. There was no single, shared agenda for the authors concerned. One typical innovation was the inclusion of the writer’s personality and perspective in the subject-field of  what he or she was observing. The illusive pseudo-objectivity of the mainstream press was binned. But the sniffy conservative satire of Tom Wolfe, the two-fisted narcissism of Norman Mailer, the psychedelic lunacy of  Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote’s self-advertising concept of the ‘non-fiction novel’ all came from different points of the ideological compass. Among this company Didion’s is a distinctive voice. For one thing, she’s female. For another, she doesn’t bullshit.

Her affinities are plain. As she writes of the US counter-cultural ‘Underground Press’ in the short opening piece here, they ‘ignore the conventional newspaper code, say what they mean. They are strident and brash, but they do not irritate; they have the faults of a friend, not of a monolith.’ The ‘freaks’ who created them now have untold successors in alternative websites that contest or puncture the version of reality marketed by the commercial mainstream press. They matter. ‘In ‘Pretty Nancy’ (also 1968) Joan Didion presents the reader not so much with Nancy Reagan as with a distanced, three-way spectacle of the author, a television news crew and ‘Nancy Reagan’ (former Hollywood actress, now the Governor of California’s wife) ‘all watching and being watched by one another’. The corporate – ‘monolith’ – celebrity interview is subverted. It’s not only a classic New Journalist text, immaculately crafted. It’s wickedly funny. 

Other sketches of Americana in the late 1960s include ‘Getting Serenity’, on Gamblers Anonymous and their personal nirvana of ’serenity’, a word, or mantra, she associates with passivity, numbness, even death (‘There was nothing particularly wrong with any of it, and yet there was something not quite right, something troubling.’) In later, longer pieces she addresses the art of writing, which can easily be construed as her own addiction. In ‘Why I Write’ (1976) she unpretentiously defines a writer as ’a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper’. The epigraph of ‘Last Words’ (1993) is the opening paragraph of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a masterpiece of plain, factual English that carries an irresistible undertow of sensory and emotional tension, a ‘foreshadowing’. With her characteristic precision Didion records that ‘Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other 103 have one. Twenty-four of the words are “the”, fifteen are “and”. There are four commas.’  Like Hemingway, she works from experience, ‘a picture in the mind’, not from abstractions, and if her grammar is often more complex than his it is as effective in its impact.     

Read this book. I recommend it especially for anyone who writes, or is thinking of writing and wants to find their own style. Its contents may be historical, but they’re not ephemeral. Congratulations to Fourth Estate for issuing it in a well produced hardback with an attractive font – ‘Didot’ – in a decent size. Not so much to Hilton Als, whose dragging, overlong foreword, bulked out by sizeable quotes, stoops to inform the reader that Sacramento, Didion’s home town, is Spanish for ‘Sacrament’. But you can always choose to skip him and just read her; more than once for the full benefit. Then carry on reading her.    

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Fourth Estate, 2021). 978-0008451752, 192 pp., hardback.

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