Every word in the right place
Every book by Joan Didion is a short book. Her two most famous, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), are 238 and 222 pages respectively, and the most-read of her five novels, Play It As It Lays (1970), is just a little longer, at 240 Pages. Her most recent memoir, The Year of Magical Thought (2005) and Blue Nights (2011), which recorded the deaths of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne (heart attack) and adopted daughter Quintana (acute pancreatitis), were 240 and 208 pages, respectively. This latest book, a collection of reprinted magazine articles and book suggestions titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is just 149 pages, though a 35-page introduction from Hilton Als, a drama critic for the New Yorker, fills the grand total so it’s not Quite Didion’s shortest book, which appears to be Salvador (1983), a 110-page repackaging of two articles she wrote for the New York Review of Books about a trip she and Dunne had traveled to this Central American country almost before forty years ago when the hordes of journalists who came there to cover the civil war from left to right tended to leave out the “El” in his name, as opposed to today when El Salvador’s main concern for journalists is Donald Trump in 2018 it was supposedly an “S-Hole”.
Let me tell you what I mean. Not only is it one of Didion’s shortest books, it is also one of their smallest, measuring 5 “by 8”. So a reader may wonder if they are getting their money’s worth at the list price of $ 23. For example, for almost the same price of $ 23.99, you can get the Library of America’s Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s (2019), a fat, 980-page compilation of five entire books by her, including Slouching, Play It and The White Album.
Six of the twelve essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean are reprints of columns that Didion, alternating with Dunne, wrote for The Saturday Evening Post for several years until the magazine passed away in 1969. All six are from the same year, 1968, and because the Didion / Dunne columns had a word limit of about 1,200 words, they are very short essays indeed, and it’s one of the wonders of a 5 by 8 inch page book, which can cover a 1,200-word essay Complete seven of these pages. One of the Saturday Evening Post deals, “Pretty Nancy,” in which Didion observes Nancy Reagan, wife of the Governor of California and not yet the wife of the President of the United States, is forging a rhododendron flower harvest from her Sacramento garden TV shoot, also appeared as a reprint in an abbreviated form in The White Album, so that this is, in a sense, a reprint of a reprint. Another re-emphasis on “Let me tell you what I mean” is “Why I Write,” which first appeared as an article in the New York Times Magazine in 1976 and as an entry in an anthology entitled “The Writer on Her Work” in 1980 landed here. A third essay, “On College of One’s Choice Failure to Elect”, is from the Saturday Evening Post Magical Reprint, 1968, about the rejection letter she received as a high school graduate from Stanford that forced her to attend instead the University of California-Berkeley has published on the now-defunct College Admission website since at least 2013.
It is easy to parody Didion’s style, with its deliberate repetitions resulting in sentences that are perhaps much more meandering and elongated than is normally required.
This does not mean that the rather old and occasionally worn material in this rather narrow volume (the latest essay for the New Yorker and on Martha Stewart and the Martha Stewart industry from 2000) is not worth reading. Each of the twelve essays is characterized by the precise diamond drilling that Didion claims to have worked through with innumerable paraphrases in order to put every word in its very long and rhythmic sentences in the right place, and by her supernatural powers of observations that make it enable her to locate a detail of clothing or behavior or speech inflection or interior decoration that is tiny almost imperceptibly and tells the reader everything they need to know about the person she is describing, as in this one about Nancy Reagan’s voice:
“Indeed,” said Nancy Reagan with a spirit. Nancy Reagan says almost anything with a spirit, perhaps because she was an actress for a couple of years and has the starting actress habit of investing even the most casual lines with a much more dramatic emphasis than is usually asked for on a Tuesday morning on Forty-Fifth Street in Sacramento.
It is easy to parody this style with its deliberate repetitions, resulting in sentences that are perhaps much more meandering and elongated than is normally required – just as it is easy to parody the style of Ernest Hemingway, whose sentences Didion writes: In “Last Words,” her essay on Hemingway (The New Yorker, 1998), she studied right through to punctuation over and over as a teenager practicing being a writer herself. As with Hemingway, however, if Joan Didion is good, she is very, very good, and her arrows, tiny, slender, and sharp as silk needles (these appear in a 1966 Saturday Evening Post article, unfortunately not included in this book, but can be found online), hit their targets right on target.
The problem with Let Me Tell You What I Mean isn’t the quality of the material, but why a lot of it is showing up again in 2021. The Saturday Evening Post’s Alicia and the Underground Press column notes how much more truthful, not to mention the vibrancy found in the subjective accounts of events in the counter-cultural “alternative” urban weeklies featured in The 1960s skyrocketed than in the steady reports of the mainstream press. Except that this is not 1968 or even 1998 and there are no more alternative weeklies for all intents and purposes as the underground press has been killed or reduced to inconsistency by the internet. The Martha Stewart essay “Everywoman.com” is as brilliantly observational as anything Didion has written, suggesting that contrary to what left-wing journalists have written about her ad nauseam, Stewart is building her massive multimedia -Imperiums did not capitalize on the fears of ordinary women of being able to maintain the beautiful, artisanal households photographed in Martha Stewart Living. Rather, Stewart used their fantasies – shared, as Didion himself admits – that if they did, they too could build a billion dollar business from everyday homemade skills like canning, baking, decorating. and catering. But the Martha Stewart story didn’t end in 2000 when New York City published Didion’s essay. It went on and on, including Stewart’s 2004 conviction and jail for lying to the FBI about a stock trade, their self-proclaimed redemption, and reclaiming their company from the men who took it over, the final takeover of the company by an even larger entity and Stewart’s current retirement age at 79, with her star having faded a bit. Stewart survived what even Didion had to say about her.
And that leads to the other problem: Joan Didion, who is now 86 years old, withdrew from writing after Blue Nights, ten years ago. As Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan pointed out in a review of this book, which is possibly the most astute criticism of Didion’s writing strengths and weaknesses to date, Didion was at the center and is best remembered as a young woman with a fresh young woman in The Hippies of Haight -Ashbury, the highways of Los Angeles, the compassless inner workings of the affluent in sun-drenched, not yet overpopulated California of the 1960s and 1970s. Her best job that made her iconic was her work – her magazine pieces – during this period: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Let me tell you what I mean, a tribute to this glittering time and to the nostalgia of the readers, with a dust-proof photo of a 30-year-old Didion wearing a fashionable shift dress, a lighted cigarette in his hand, thoughtful but mostly straightforward the camera to command their attention. Her later work deteriorated with few exceptions: the preferences for “Salvador” and elsewhere that the progressive readership of the New York Review of Books wanted to see in print, and most recently the memoirs in which introspection seemed to have become a nuisance Style in annoying tics. But the market for Joan Didion’s books remains hungry, and with it the current flow of reprints from the past, of which the 2019 Library of America volume is Exhibit A. We can hear the distinct scratching of the bottom of the Didion keg. In his foray, which is longer than all the contributions in Didion’s book, Hilton Als tries to find something new on his subject (“Didion, a word carver in the granite of the specific”), but mostly fills his assigned pages by summarizing and quoting large ones Parts of the content and other well-known Didion works.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to read “Why I’m Writing” again or to finally see the unabridged version of “Pretty Nancy”. And there is an essay in the book that has not lost the ability to move the reader to tears even after all these years. It’s “Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles,” a 1968 Saturday Evening Post column. Didion attends a meeting of the 101st Airborne Division in Las Vegas, which jumped into Normandy and besieged Bastogne. These are the survivors, and they now have sons serving or preparing to serve in Vietnam. One man’s son is already missing in action, and another doesn’t want his teenage boy to risk death. “[P]Unfortunately, it wasn’t such a big adventure this time, ”wrote Didion. “Maybe it was difficult to bring the same urgency to a Vietnamese village or two that brought them to the liberation of Europe.” Vietnam wasn’t the last time the Screaming Eagles spent their bravery in wars far away in Washington, the urgency of which was difficult to see. Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind. Of all of the essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, this one isn’t stale.