Review

Joan Didion gets out of town in 'South and West' — and finds only fragments

How well do we really know Joan Didion? A Didion completist might think she has a whole universe of reference materials at her fingertips. There are those last, bestselling memoirs. There is the book about her family’s roots in California. There are the personal tidbits laced through the varied body of work that stretches out before them: the trip to Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce,” the house in Los Angeles that was “kept even more negligently than my hair,” the medical record where a psychiatrist observes “a personality in process of deterioration.” 

But not everything is in those books. Didion has always been a master of persona rather than confession, per se. The items displayed before us are carefully chosen and meticulously framed. There is almost nothing of haphazard daily life in Didion’s work, no sense of accident or chance. Everything in controlled, measured out  and sharpened to a point. Even the meaningless is given meaning. That sort of paradox is central to Didion’s work: She takes a ruin and in prose makes it whole and beautiful.

It is mysterious, in that context, to be presented with “South and West: From a Notebook.” It is not actually new work but a collection of notes from two failed works in progress. We are given no indication of why Didion has chosen to publish this book now.

We get only a somewhat florid and unrevealing introduction, written by Nathaniel Rich. He does not explain why he’s even attached to this book, instead falling into the trap of trying to ape Didion’s style. “One does not have to stay long to learn how easily plans in New Orleans, like its houses, become waterlogged and subside into the mud, breaking to pieces,” is the sort of thing he has to add. To be fair, it is easily skipped.

Didion herself seems to have added only two brief prefatory notes, which give the barest context and are inexplicably dated 10 years apart, in 2006 and 2016. We learn from them that the observations about New Orleans, and about the rest of the Deep South, come from a trip undertaken in the space of a month in 1970. “At the time, I had thought it might be a piece,” she adds, without further comment. The much briefer portion of the book that tackles California came from an effort to write about the kidnapping and subsequent trial of Patricia Hearst in 1976. “I thought the trial had some meaning for me — because I was from California,” Didion writes. “This didn’t turn out to be true.” 

So this is a book of notes, and the notes are explicitly not meant to amount to anything in particular. That does not mean that the observations Didion presents here are without elegance and insight. Her South is a South populated by eccentrics she takes relatively seriously. She visits a Reptile House populated mostly by snakes. She swims in a hotel pool that “smells of fish.” Didion manages not to leave the subject of race untouched, either: She meets a white man who owns, in his own words, the “ethnic”  radio station in Meridian, Miss., and who says things like, “Of course neither you nor I can change the older black, the forty-year-old, his life patterns are settled.”  She buys a Confederate flag towel, then remarks with light irony that “my child prefers it to the good ones.” Her West, though much briefer, devolves into a self-examination that popped up in other Didion pieces: “Looking through the evidence I find what seems to me now (or rather seemed to me then) an entirely spurious aura of social success and achievement.”

There are also, perhaps inevitably, a few unforgettable shards of prose. “Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas,” Didion writes, by way of illustrating the “fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans.” So the Didion style is there, in the close attention paid to the sound of the words — sound is always how Didion’s created an atmosphere. But her hypnotist’s tricks keep getting broken up by the necessarily partial, impressionistic progress of a book like this. No anecdote gets longer than a page or two, and none ties smoothly to the rest.

“South and West” is a book for the completists and hardcore fans, in other words. Though it feels somehow impolite to mention this, because Didion, 82, is still with us, it is the sort of book that isn’t typically published before the writer is dead. It is most reminiscent of the editions of Susan Sontag’s journals that have appeared in recent years and that have  became very popular among a certain kind of young, bookish person. Those journals exposed a side of Sontag that hadn’t really been visible in her aggressively mandarin, intellectual work, a side that had doubts and setbacks and even a strong sense of humor.

Here, if indeed these are just the rough notes, there is no new Didion to be discovered. In rough drafts of pieces she sounds just like herself, if a bit wordier than usual. We do get a little more about her life before John Gregory Dunne than we are used to seeing. 

Intriguingly, we get a glimpse of a Bad Boyfriend. Called only N. in this book, he happened to be from Louisiana. He also happened to leave bizarre messages for Didion: “I guess you think our mother used to be County Cookie Chairman,” goes one of them. “I guess you think I take up a lot of room in a small bed.” There is something charming there, and one longs for Didion to get really chatty about it. So much of the mythos of “The Year of Magical Thinking” is predicated on the ideal Didion-Dunne marriage, and this sort of pretext to it illuminates something we didn’t know about Didion before. Naturally, though, she doesn’t linger on N. long enough to pursue it.

Of course, that’s in keeping with the general teasing effect of the book. The enigmatic packaging here poses so many questions. What if Didion had finished these pieces? Does she wish that she had? Does that even fit with our vision of her as someone rather steely and indifferent to the affections of her readers? Is “South and West” a dispatch from some alternate-world Didion? Or is it here because our current political phantasmagoria calls for the kind of insights Didion produced in the past? Perhaps it fits that Didion remains as enigmatic here as she always has in her prose. Obviously, there are some things she’ll never tell us.

Dean is the 2017 recipient of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in criticism awarded by the National Book Critics Circle. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion.”

South and West: From a Notebook

Joan Didion

Knopf: 160 pp., $24

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