Joan Didion Dead at 87

by Bob Schwartz

Writer Joan Didion has died at the age of 87. There are going to be so many literary and laudatory obituaries that I am not going to try. The New York Times obituary is just one of dozens.

Joan Didion wrote non-fiction and fiction. I am partial to her essays, where she demonstrated that she was one of the greatest English language prose voices. I have read and reread her collections, the best of which is The White Album (1979) .

The White Album begins with a long multi-part essay entitled The White Album. The whole collection is her vision of the Sixties, as a writer, person, and L.A. resident, but the opening essay is the key. It starts with a perfect paragraph about storytelling, then describes her disjointed life, wanders through the Doors, Eldridge Cleaver, and more, visits the Manson murders, and closes with her view of writing itself.

The essay begins:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and ends:

I have known, since then, very little about the movements of the people who seemed to me emblematic of those years. I know of course that Eldridge Cleaver went to Algeria and came home an entrepreneur. I know that Jim Morrison died in Paris. I know that Linda Kasabian fled in search of the pastoral to New Hampshire, where I once visited her; she also visited me in New York, and we took our children on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. I also know that in 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to “continue my writing.” Writing had helped him, he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.

Please read what’s in between.