navigating joan didion’s sense of nothingness and nihilism in 2018


Joan Didion by Jerugen Teller for Celine S/S 2015. (R) Joan Didion by Julian Wasser.


Joan Didion and her prized Stingray, Los Angeles, 1968
Photograph by Julian Wasser

“I had…a technical intention…to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”  — Didion

Joan Didion’s beautiful and unnerving ‘Play It As It Lays’ (1970) speaks to raw and intimate dialogues of existence. 48 years on, the novel provides a map by which to navigate some existential questions of the present day. The novel follows protagonist Maria through a visual narrative of cinematic episodes in which LA, a sense of crisis and modes of emptiness are conceptualised.

In the barren landscape of the LA desert and freeways, Didion navigates isolation and empty space in abundance. In 2018, Didion’s language seems evermore profound for its exact depiction of nothingness. It is the space she describes, and her occupation within that space as a fatalistic mode of being (in which humans are essentially powerless), that speaks to a kind of pessimism in 2018. When reading ‘Play It As It Lays’, the connections to the modern day are striking, and voids the text of befitting the cliche that all novels in some sense predict or confirm a universality of human nature. Her impact feels different from Dickens’ stratified working class or Orwell’s dystopia, concepts that circulate academic discussion for their relevance today. Didion’s link to the present feels far more prevalent for its exact emptiness and nothingness. The spaces she leaves, the gaps within the structure of the text, actually somehow communicate as much about individual experience than what is said.

Didion communicates such a sense of emptiness in her work, in the episodic structure of the text and the minimal plot provided, that it becomes almost impossible to discuss. How can one discuss the lack of in a text? The emptiness? Didion raises similar questions artists today find themselves asking. How can we speak to the present day and verbalise any of this experience without relying on the tropes of a movement? The early Romantics didn’t call themselves Romantics at the time. What are we and how and when do we find out?

Didion’s text, published in 1970, speaks clearly to some social contexts. The freeways and the coca-colas as examples of modernity and consumerism that provide her relief and Maria’s abortion speaks to ideas of feminism and autonomy. What is said then, definitely does speak to her contemporary environment. But more interestingly, Didion plays with empty space to speak to themes of nihilism and fatalism, ideas that seem relevant today in the process of creating art. Perhaps within these spaces, we, as a modern audience, fill the gaps as we read. And perhaps that is the crux of Didion’s novel, its inclusion and reliance on the empty spaces to be read and navigated with as much detail as the prose. In the process of navigating her own experience of 1970, Didion finds the technical inclusion of emptiness as vital as the narrative, and perhaps this speaks directly to the sense of immobility found within existing in the present. In 2018, we can adopt this navigation of emptiness and space to find ways to cope with our own contemporary environment. Looking at spaces in literature, such as Didion’s elliptical novel, we find ourselves seeing from an altogether different viewpoint. A viewpoint that is familiar. A sense of emptiness and existential dread in how to move forward in the present day, in a culture of climate change and crises and identity politics.

Notably, the spaces in Didion’s novel importantly draw an even bigger focus on what is said. By leaving spaces and structuring the text so episodically, the episodes themselves are emboldened and the protagonist’s experience and the experience of the reader are enlivened. Nicholas Rombes writes that the novel is ‘so full of excess truth that it shoots across the page more as a prophecy than a novel’.

Accepting the spaces then, the sense of emptiness and nothingness they manufacture provides the first step in coping with the present, and then allowing this space to frame what is said becomes the second. Didion demonstrates a way to overcome a sense of nothingness within the present: in the very acceptance of it.





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