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Review: Writing in Didion’s honor — and her shadow

Joan Didion
Joan Didion in 1977.
(Mary Lloyd Estrin)

Christine Lennon, Su Wu and others contribute essays to a collection on the master essayist

Joan Didion is inescapable, an icon, and so essential to California’s story of itself that some even call her Los Angeles’ first public intellectual. It requires a certain bravery to tackle her legacy.

“Slouching Towards Los Angelesis, as the collection’s editor Steffie Nelson writes, a “celebration and an investigation of Didion’s ongoing claim on California and its writers — because she in turn belongs to us.” There are so many exciting facets of this ownership, among them Didion’s gender, which, Nelson writes, “was at once revolutionary and irrelevant; she wasn’t playing a man’s game — she created her own game.” (Twenty of the book’s 25 contributors are female.)

Many know Didion’s seemingly effortless style, her dinner parties, the husband she wrote movies with, the move from Malibu to New York City. But this collection, at its best, adds new information to the swirling, decades-long accumulation of gossip, legend and close reading.

In one of the most revelatory pieces, Michelle Chihara draws on her dissertation to look closely at property records that make it clear how complicated this native daughter’s story actually is. In essays and books, Didion has grappled with how completely she was smitten with the pioneer mythology of early California and the role her proud clan played in the state’s early days. But it’s an uglier moment, Chihara writes, when Didion readily criticizes others’ decisions about how to deal, responsibly or not, with a legacy of colonization and land use. Even as Didion ridiculed other California families for succumbing to developers and oil men, she and her brother quietly subdivided portions of their own inheritance to make room for Taco Bells and Walmarts. One plot, in the family’s hands since 1850, was sold in 1985 to become a McDonald’s.

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La_CA_Slouching_towards_Los_Angeles_209.JPG
(Rare Bird Books)

For a woman who’s written about politics as much as fashion, the life of the mind as much as a guy who grows orchids at a greenhouse in Malibu, there’s significant ground to cover. Flexing his many years as a music writer, Joe Donnelly offers a lovely and convincing piece about growing up with the Beatles, learning to hate them and then coming back to the band as his daughter awakens to their late ’60s records. “The White Album” is, he writes, a perfect title for Didion’s maybe best book, the 1979 collection of essays about politics and the history of California. “It’s also the band’s darkest and most complex album, their “noir,” he writes: “No wonder Didion copped its name. It’s almost like she wrote it.”

Fashion editor Christine Lennon writes a moving consideration of her own life and the way it mirrors Didion’s, from early days in New York to the various kinds of release we might find in Los Angeles. Imagining how Didion could have survived Vogue — where she worked for more than a decade, first as a research assistant and later as a features editor — Lennon leans on her own experiences and guesses that Didion “worked very hard, sat very still, and hoped no one would notice that she didn’t belong there.”

Belonging can take many forms once you escape to California. “I haven’t had a cigarette in a very long time,” Lennon admits, “and I’ve never been cool enough to drive a Corvette.” Anyhow: Soon after the photo of Didion with that yellow Stingray was taken, Lennon reports, Didion traded it in for a Volvo.

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“There were days in the desert when I would lie motionless staring at the shadows of the mesquite trees,” writes Su Wu, opening what is probably the collection’s most original and captivating piece. Never spending much time specifically considering Didion’s legacy — she mentions Gloria Steinem almost as much — Wu is instead doing something grander and more difficult, which is showing what it’s like to try to write in the shadow of the great woman. Some of her searing lines might have come right out of Didion’s best novel, “Play It as It Lays,” like this one: “It makes me want to have a migraine.” Or this: “Didion has so often been accused of glamorizing depression, but instead what she’s glamorizing is the slim possibility of depression not hollowing one out, of despair and doing.”

Some of the essays in “Slouching Towards Los Angeles” don’t do as much as they could. They’re maybe too brief — a satisfactory stab at the project, but less than stellar — and many also use shorthand as a crutch: the yellow ’Vette, the maxi dress, the cigarette, the tips for packing (bra, stockings, bourbon). One male writer even suggests that Didion “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”

It’s hard to say thanks. Maybe you don’t need to. Perhaps you haven’t read every word of this woman’s work. (“Miami” is this reviewer’s personal favorite.) Perhaps you don’t live in Los Angeles and never plan on coming to California. But Nelson’s slim and often engaging collection is worth a read for additional context and fuel, before opening once again (or for the first time) a dazzlingly original, imperfect and inescapable writer’s many groundbreaking and influential — if bleak and inimitable — pieces of journalism and fiction.

Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”

Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light

Edited by Steffie Nelson

Rare Bird: 312 pages, $27


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