When Joan Didion first traveled to New York she was wearing a dress that soon seemed dowdy. It rained that day, which was strange because it was summertime and it didn’t normally rain during the summer in California—where she was from. She took the bus into Manhattan to commence a writing career at Vogue—the beginning of a journey that would come to define her as one of the most prolific writers of her generation. Didion has penned works of political reportage, mastered the essay, authored screenplays and five novels. On the eleventh of October of this year, a documentary about her life and work Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premiered at the 55th New York Film Festival and, made using her words, epitomises her authorial intent to capture the transience of existence in an attempt to understand it—and to then make it permanent.The documentary will premiere on Netflix on 27th October, 2017. “Why did I write it down?” She asks in one of her essays in reference to a habit that started when her mother gave her a notebook at five years old. “In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?”Joan Didion, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 132
Joan Didion in her home in California, 31 March, 1972. Photo by Jill Krementz.
“Didion left New York in 1964. After spending eight years in the city, the idiosyncrasies that had once been a source of inspiration had become cliché.”
Didion left New York in 1964. After spending eight years in the city, the idiosyncrasies that had once been a source of inspiration had become cliché. There were the women walking their Yorkshire terriers on upper Madison Avenue, and there was Times Square. There were the Chinese laundromats and elevators that she cried in, and there were the taxis. From the White Rose bar, she watched man go to the moon. Hers was a New York defined by facades; it wasn’t home.
During her first year there, she’d lived with other people in their apartments and she marked time as people do, with holidays and long weekends. Then, she found a place of her own and filled it with furniture found in storage—remnants of another life lead by another woman who had since left. As Didion would eventually do. Didion didn’t bring these things with her to the apartment she rented next, about twenty blocks downtown, or her winter clothes, or the map in her bedroom she’d looked at everyday as a reminder of her home in California. She bought a bed and borrowed two French garden chairs and these items furnished a few of her new four rooms. Later, she bought yellow silk which she draped over her bedroom windows, “because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weigh the curtain correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in the afternoon thunderstorms.”Joan Didion, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 232 Hers was an existence romanticised and defined by a dream. “You see,” she says in Goodbye to All That, “it never really occurred to me that I was living a real life there. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.”Joan Didion, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 231
“In 1964, Didion travelled back across the United States to Los Angeles. The journey mimicked the one her ancestors had done, one marked by a certain mentality that came to define the American Dream.”
In 1964, Didion travelled back across the United States to Los Angeles. The journey mimicked the one her ancestors had done, one marked by a certain mentality that came to define the American Dream. They had abandoned wagons and possessions and fought disease and sometimes lost, to find a new life in the West. Didion likens the Californian landscape to this pioneer sprint; its deserts represent life and death and Hollywood is a beast with, “… a lowered sexual energy, an inability to devote more than token attention to the preoccupations of the society outside.”Joan Didion, ‘The White Album’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 160
New York has an energy, too, albeit a more frenetic one. It is also a city defined by its streets; the grid system dictates traffic flows and the movement of pedestrians in linear fashion as if attempting some form of control. Yet, New Yorkers move at speed. Whether on foot or by train, the pace at which bodies shift from A to B seems to happen more dramatically. New York is another kind of beast, one that offers solace in parks—there are over 1700 of them—as opposed to mountain hikes or city beaches. Yet skyscrapers, bastions to another kind of dream, peer constantly over tree tops. The final frontier in New York is limitless, it seems. In Los Angeles, all one need do is peer out to sea. With back turned to the city, its palm trees seem to whisper, “freedom, freedom” in the breeze.
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in their home in California, 31 March, 1972. Photo by Jill Krementz.
“There [L.A.], she acquired a sense of permanence; she lived in houses she didn’t want to leave. In Hollywood, the painted surfaces of her rented home peeled.”
Los Angeles and New York might share an expansionist psyche, but they are very different. Didion spent twenty-four years in Los Angeles, long enough, she says, to “get it.” There, she acquired a sense of permanence; she lived in houses she didn’t want to leave. In Hollywood, the painted surfaces of her rented home peeled. Rooms were plentiful, pipes were broken and the tennis court overgrown. In Malibu, she befriended a Mexican orchid breeder and watched the moonlight the Pacific Ocean, and when she smelled the jasmine flowering, she decided to give up her apartment in New York.
In California, Didion also began to acquire things. She collected mementos: a quilt made by her great-grandmother during her trip west and three tea cups embossed with her initials, family recipes, photographs and appliqué stitched by her great-great-grandmother. These objects, moved across space, serve as markers of time and began to create, for Didion, a continuity of place. They are attempts to make sense of her family narrative—one that underlies the larger American story—something she continually tries to make sense of in her work. Yet, these objects also became burdensome. “Paralysed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room,” she says of a Los Angeles home. “I decide to meet it head on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed… There is no final solution for the letters of rejection from The Nation and the teacups handprinted in 1900… I close the drawer, and have another cup of coffee with my mother. We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never really understood.”Joan Didion, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 166
“It is hard to find California now. Unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realise how much of anyone’s memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else’s memory, stories handed down on the family network.”
In 1965 Didion wrote: “It is hard to find California now. Unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realise how much of anyone’s memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else’s memory, stories handed down on the family network.”Joan Didion, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 177 Perhaps we choose to travel to and live in particular cities because something about them resonates with us. We are drawn to them, like moths, hoping that some part of them will rub off on us or that we might understand why we are here, our purpose, or what it really means to live. Perhaps Didion wrote about the melancholy of memory as a precursor to leaving Los Angeles. Perhaps she had found what she was looking for.
Now, Didion lives in an apartment on East 71st Street, where her great-great-grandmother’s appliqué hangs on the wall. She moved back to New York in 1988 but continues to live between the two cities, maintaining her Californian driving license. Yet, despite understanding Los Angeles, the nostalgia that sparked her initial journey West remains, and it’s this, that seems to define her later work. The Year of Magical Thinking details the loss of her husband and in Blue Nights she writes about her daughter, who died two years later. There is also Political Fictions, which successfully unravels the American political process and unmasks the American Dream. Perhaps Didion hadn’t really found what she was looking for but she was somehow getting closer to it.
When I first arrived in New York, I too lived in an apartment filled with things that could easily be thrown away. It was also summer then, and the subway cars pushed the humid heat around the city. I found Union Square and solace in a bookstore, in the New York section—travel books, city guides, historical nonfiction—all in attempt to delineate and understand the city while simultaneously contributing to the mythology of it. I stood in awe of the books, but also the endeavours made to categorise and familiarise streetscapes. Didion has a way of doing this that isn’t contrived. Her essays are maps of a different kind; of a complicated psyche searching for existential solace. For Didion, a sense of belonging seems to offer some respite as do family relics. Both offer a central point from which to form and focus a narrative—whether it is one to be continued or a journey beginning seemingly from the start.
Sitting in my rented tenement room at the time, at a rickety desk, and looking out over the painted-red fire escape into the gardens of the buildings below, I was reminded of the bookstore on that hot afternoon. I don’t use spiral notebooks, nor do I keep a diary, but there is something to be said for the recording of a life. By intermittently anchoring herself on the poles of country divided, Didion traverses not the inner workings of her own mind but that of America’s, too. There is a universality with which she writes. It’s as if her pen a scalpel and she a doctor of some kind; the mystic of Los Angeles and New York City a little tarnished by her efforts but still seemingly divine.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold will premiere on Netflix on 27 October, 2017.