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Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Book review: South and West, Joan Didion (2017)

The foreword of this slim volume – which unhappily takes a mere couple of hours to read – is effusive in its praise of the elderly writer. It’s by young American novelist Nathaniel Rich and it’s hyperbolic.

Didion’s notes, “which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time.” There’s plenty of it, too. According to Rich, “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyrean distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation – has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain.” He even praises her reporting techniques, what she had called her “reporting tricks”: “less tricks than an intuitive genius for locating the people in a given community who will best reveal its character.” This kind of thing goes on and on.
Yet even in its most casual iteration, Didion’s voice, with its sensitivity to the grotesqueries and vanities that dance beneath the skim of daily experience, is unmistakeable.
The book is in two sections. The first, the longest, titled ‘Notes on the South’, is a notebook of observations taken down during a trip Didion made with her husband by car in 1970.

The aeroplane landed in Louisiana (New Orleans), then they drove a rental car through Mississippi (Biloxi, Pass Christian, Gulfport, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Laurel, Enterprise, Basic City), to Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Winfield, Guin), then down through Mississippi again (Grenada, Oxford, Clarksdale, Greenville) and back to New Orleans, from where the travellers caught a flight back to San Francisco. Going by what she wrote she couldn’t get out of the region fast enough.

This part of the book contains the most interesting material, and what Rich says about its contemporary relevance are cogent. There has been a retrograde shift in America that has privileged a mythical past of order and prosperity, a time when graft, racism and a myriad of other evils were however real threats to democracy. But in a way that resembles the celebration of Flo Bjelke-Petersen in Australia since her death on 20 December, the past’s ugly side can be conveniently forgotten.

The second part of the book (‘California Notes’) is a series of notes Didion made in 1976 as part of a project to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone magazine. This project also never got off the ground.

Didion might be an unwilling participant in today’s culture wars, which is where Rich takes the book in his foreword, but it’s likely that she would have assented to such use of her manuscript. After all, the problem of the ignorant conservative voter is something that is central to what it means to be American today. It’s an existential threat to the wellbeing of the republic. I wrote about the threat in a review of American author Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel ‘Flight Behaviour’, which appeared on this blog on 3 March 2016. Those were moments that were in advance of the election of Donald Trump. In the months since his election, the threat has just gotten bigger.

It was probably always inevitable that the book would be used in this way by the liberal elite to which Rich belongs. As does Didion. Not that I disagree with them. It’s distressing to be confronted with equivalent phenomena in Australia, where far-right protest groups are vocal in support of such political parties as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, that want to take the country back to a similarly mythical past. A past that has been rejected so many times by so many people in so many elections for so many good reasons.

The question remains whether this ephemeral work is worth the money you pay for it. I say that the first half – about the deep south of America – itself is worth the money. But what I nevertheless regret is unthinking canonisation of living authors, and attempts by self-interested purveyors of cultural products to place such authors’ work outside the purview of critical scrutiny. This is after all a very slim volume of unfinished jottings, and hardly a major endeavour.

But the notebook has objective interest and it’s a pity that Didion never got around to completing the projects she had started. She might then have deserved Rich’s effusive praise. It’s silly to laud a journalist’s reporting techniques, before anything substantial has been written, based merely on gleanings extracted from a series of townships she drove through for a few short weeks one summer. I find his attitude infantilising, as though Didion were somehow more than human. She’s not, and we would do well to remember it.

There is plenty of reason to suspect Didion’s oft-vaunted technique, particularly as it operates in ‘Blue Nights’ (2011), the book about the death of her daughter, which was, to me, quite unsatisfactory. Her way of inserting herself into narratives she creates is justified in many instances because it allows her to extract additional value from the material compared to what might otherwise have been straight-up reporting of what was said and done by people she met.

In the case of her book on her daughter, however, the technique serves to mask a disturbing lack of objectivity, where the reader receives a distorted and self-interested version of Quintana Roo Dunne’s life. You never really feel like you’re being told the truth in that book. If Didion had any reservations about her parental conduct in relation to her daughter’s mental illness, alcoholism and untimely demise she didn’t display them openly in it. In this context, “cool majesty” might easily be read as uncaring remoteness. Does a good parent display “empyrean distance” in relations with her child?

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