Tagged joan didion

california belongs to joan didion


For a writer to take ownership of a place, to stake out their position in its liminal spaces, they perpetuate their vision into art and popular culture, and in turn, our collective memory. When we read we are unrelentingly challenged to deconstruct writers’ visions and how they shape our perspectives of familiar places. Together, as writer and reader, we enliven the phenomena of fiction, that through fiction places are transformed,  plucked out of objectivity and into a metaphysical realm, resemblant of, albeit distorted, the place itself. And this vision is what really counts; what culture and art reveal to us, what we see in the world is sufficiently, and entirely, as the world is. Or may as well be.

In her new book, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes: “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

California belongs to Joan Didion.

Michiko Kakutani wrote this in the New York Times in 1979. Once you’re familiar with Didion, it’s difficult to hear news reports, or read about or watch on television anything Californian without her vision of the Santa Ana and the Mojave desert and the highways and the empty spaces, elbowing their way forward in plain sight. Below, evidenced by various Didion quotations, we explore California, namely, Didion’s own experience of California that has for the last four decades been translated into something of cultural phenomena and its own very real reality: her burning, amorphous, enigmatic, spiritual, golden metropolis in all its mystique.

“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

Still from Play It As It Lays (1972)

“…devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves… It is the season of suicide, and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

Ed Ruscha Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963)

“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant… Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new lifestyle, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.”

still from Lady Bird (2017), Sacramento California

“Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.”

“The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participation requires total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”


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.