How Can I Tell Them There’s Nothing Left?

I reviewed Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion(St. Martin’s Press, 752pp.) for the Washington Post. You can read that review here. What follows below is a revised and expanded version of that essay.

On a June afternoon in 1982, Joan Didion strolled through the Metrocenter in San Salvador in search of water purification tablets. The complex billed itself as “Central America’s Largest Shopping Mall,” and Didion took note of all its bourgeois trappings: designer blue jeans, foie gras, bar carts, and expensive vodka. Outside, a three-year-old civil war seethed.

Didion had travelled to El Salvador that month with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, to report on the conflict for The New York Review of Books. The juxtaposition of conspicuous consumption against the terror outside the mall provided Didion with the type of color she usually used to illuminate her journalism — the disconnect between story and reality.

But not in this instance.

“I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony,” she said. What would it reveal?

Having found no Halazone tablets, Didion left the Metrocenter and walked back to the Camino Real hotel where she and Dunne were staying. As she waited to cross the Boulevard de los Heroes she watched as militiamen jabbed guns into a civilian’s back and marshalled him into a van. Didion’s reaction: “[A]nd I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.”

This type of existential dread is the hallmark of Joan Didion’s prodigious writing life, showing up in her journalism, essays, novels, screenplays, and memoirs. She managed her misgivings by writing about them. In 1975, Didion gave a speech at UC-Berkeley, her alma mater, entitled “Why I Write,” where she declared: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Prose imposed order.

Tracy Daughtery captures Didion’s anxiety well in his expansive profile The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. He guides readers through her desultory days growing up in the Sacramento River Valley, a childhood hinged around the second world war; her years at Berkeley in the Fifties, before the barricades; her love and loneliness in New York City, working at Vogue; her Sixties return to the Golden Land — “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up” — married to Dunne, and where she would become one the decade’s most insightful (and inciting) critics.

As writers associated with the so-called New Journalism, Didion and Dunne rose to literary celebrity in the 1960s and ‘70s, and Daughtery takes us through boozy Hollywood dinner parties, book and movie deal negotiations, and the adoption of their daughter Quintana Roo (named after a Mexican state on the eastern part of Yucatan Peninsula).

As a third act, the Dunnes (as they were called) moved back to New York City in the late 1980s. Daughtery captures Didion’s political transformation from a Goldwater libertarian (who once deemed Richard Nixon “too liberal”) to something resembling a Democrat. Her writing changed, too. It became more pointedly political, taking text — be it political speeches or the journalistic accounts of them — as the subject of her sharp eye.

New York is also where her husband died of a sudden heart-attack at their dinner table on a December night in 2003. And, tragically, where Quintana would also die, 20 months later, at the age of 39.

Didion, now 80 and still living in Manhattan, would not talk with Daughtery, himself a writer and Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon St. University, for this project, as he notes in the preface: “She leaves obvious potholes for a biographer.” Nonetheless, he accomplished the titanic task of reconstructing her life from the jigsawed fragments of her writing and interviews (all of which are sourced through 112 pages of notes at the end of the book). The biography moves, more or less, chronologically through Didion’s life as Daughtery stiches stories, some of which were written 40 years apart, into a coherent narrative.

For readers who know Didion’s work well, Daughtery’s approach in The Last Love Song can be frustrating, at times. The amalgamated quality of the narrative renders the stories both familiar and, simultaneously, strange. Quotes, mined for their biographical efficacy, can feel out of context when used to offer detail or dialogue in another part of the story. For example, in describing their first California beach house, Daughtery offers a scene of the couple swimming in the Pacific Ocean with the adventurous Dunne yelling to cautious Didion: “Feel the swell! Go with the change!” While this scene is set in the mid-1960s, Didion didn’t write those words until after Dunne’s death. She repeats them, as if a canticle, throughout her grieving remembrance The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Another constraint to the method of literary biography is that if Didion didn’t explicitly write about a subject or discuss it in interviews, then it doesn’t appear prominently in the story. Her parents, for instance, such influential and tormented figures in her life, disappear for long stretches in Daughtery’s narrative, as does Quintana, at times. That said, Daughtery works well within these constraints, and the story is a compelling one.

The importance of storytelling, in fact, is the dominant theme in The Last Love Song, as it has been in Didion’s life. She begins her essay “The White Album” by famously declaring, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As a child, those narratives often took the shape of cautionary tales. Born in Sacramento, Didion describes her upbringing as “the logical product of a childhood largely spent among conservative California Republicans.” They were a frontier family, several generations removed (and tangentially connected to the Donner-Reed Party), which inspired an ethic of rugged individualism and “wagon-train morality.” In an early essay gathered in the seminal Sixties collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote: “for better or worse, we are what we learned as children,” noting that her own education was “illuminated by graphic litanies of the grief awaiting those who failed in their loyalties to one another.” Her dread and anxiety was inchoate, forged in the Sierra-Nevadas long before she was born.

Stories, then, are anodyne.

In The Year of Magical Thinking Didion writes: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.” The context for this passage is that Didion is trying to come to terms with her daughter’s mysterious illness, which has left Quintana in a coma, and Didion and Dunne searching for answers.

But then her husband dies, and the narrative changes. To survive she writes an elegy. But on the eve of that book’s publication, her daughter dies. And the narrative changes again.

Stories, also, are evanescent.

Daugherty ends his biography beautifully, recasting Didion’s haunting 2011 interview with friend and fellow writer Sara Davidson, as an epilogue entitled “Life Limits.” Didion had just published a requiem for Quintana called Blue Nights. Davidson saw that as strength. She recalled Didion’s great-great grandmother had to bury “a two-year-old who died of fever on the trail.” Of such fortitude and persistence Didion once said, “I don’t call it strength. I call it pragmatism. You’ve got to get through what you’ve got to get through.” That notion of a western frontier ethic, self-reliance, and a wagon-train morality had animated both her moral philosophy and her writing life. But now she told Davidson: “It’s not my code anymore. It would be a useless code, because I’m not self-reliant.” She acknowledges that while she hasn’t “found an acceptable solution” to her suddenly shattered philosophy, the formulation of any new code of living would now have to be rooted in acquiescence and acceptance. She says, “Surrender was never close to my code before. It did not involve surrender. But I don’t mean giving up. I mean…giving yourself over to what is.”

The narrative was no longer holding. And understandably so, given all that she endured during her seventh decade. And while Didion’s famous phrase, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” flashes throughout the biography, The Last Love Song recalls the often-overlooked sentence that begins the next paragraph:

“Or at least we do for a while.”

Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor & CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism in the Department of Communication and Journalism & the Honors College at the University of Maine. He’s currently working on two book manuscripts: The Elements of Literary Journalism: The Political Promise of Narrative News and The Rest is Silence: The Unexplored Nonfiction of David Foster Wallace. His site is: www.joshroiland.com