Friday, 1 January 2016

Book review: The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty (2015)

See an interview with me as I talk about this book on a Google hangout. The Didion book is the last of three my friend and I talk about in the approx. 33-minute video linked here.

Daugherty asked Joan Didion for permission to talk wtih her in order to write this biography but the request was declined, yet despite that there is abundant information in the records the author consulted in her labours to furnish material for a very long book, as this is. As you can see in the image that accompanies this blogpost, I only got about 60 percent of the way through the book - by which time Didion had returned with her husband to New York after living for most of her working life in Los Angeles - before putting it aside. Didion is a kind of touchstone for a certain kind of liberal late-20th-century cultural viewpoint and she wrote in numerous genres, including novels, reportage, and memoir. She was present in California for the game-changing 60s and 70s. She began to interrogate seriously the language of power in the 80s with her political novels about the South and Central America. She was very much in the avantgarde. But although I read this book in Kindle it would have come out in a regular printed tome at around 900 pages. And I wondered by the end of my task whether Didion was worth that much space.

Certainly Didion illustrates something about how political conversions can happen. Raised in Sacramento, Didion was a Republican born and bred but after living for a time in LA among people involved in the film industry, and being anyway herself concerned with the trustworthiness of public narratives, she eventually came to shift to the other side of politics, despite the ever-present wish for a vanishing past. The title of the book points to one of the author's achievements: to describe Didion's tendency to glorify and idealise the past into something it was not. The novelist's idyllic childhood and stories of valiant ancestors aside, there was plenty of content ready in her life to disabuse her forever of the wistful dream, but it seems never to have left her. The failure that was Blue Nights (2011) attests, I think, to that.

Speaking of which, Daugherty spends a fair amount of time looking into Didion's daughter's life story, trying to see where it all went wrong and where the borderline personality disorder she suffered from came from. I don't think she was entirely successful, partly because it is never clear whether such mental illnesses are due to nature or nurture. Quintana's self-destructive tendencies are evident in the biography, and Daugherty makes sure Didion's own behaviour does not go unexamined, but there is no definitive answer available here in this regard.

For those, like me, who have enjoyed Didion's writing over the years, especially Daugherty's chapters on the early years when the novelist left UC Berkeley to start her writing career at Vogue magazine in New York are fascinating. There is plenty of original research in these chapters that unearths stories about Didion's distant past. Alcohol was always present - this is something Daugherty makes clear throughout the book, especially with regard to how it might have affected the novelist's daughter - and there were men and parties and fun times for a young woman finding herself in the big city. It's not clear if prescience drew Didion back West - California would turn out to be so important to America in the era of the counterculture - or else nostalgia, or something like greed: West was where the film industry was located after all, and Didion always wanted to be a writer earning a living from her own labours. In any case, she went. I think we can all agree - those of us who have been introduced to Didion's writing at some point along the way - that the move was auspicious.

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