14 April 2017

Joan Didion: South and West

Man, I never thought I would be getting to skim through a new Joan Didion book. While getting anything new from her is like the best gift I could ever receive, I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I found out it was just a 160-paged publication of her old notes from the 70’s. I still hold out hope that we will get SOMETHING new from Didion before she dies, but I’ll take literally whatever I can get from her.

South and West is split into two parts. The majority of the book is filled with her notes on travelling the southern states of America, while a dozen or so pages at the end are her thoughts on California, with reference to the Patty Hearst trial. South and West is not a complete / flowing narrative, it’s a collection of parsed, reportorial thoughts, where some passages are introduced with “random notes from the weekend: ... ” This book is unlike any of her other work in its structure, but is so clearly Didion’s writing that you forget it’s been six years since she last published something. She says in the foreword that she documented this trip in hopes that it would "turn into a piece.”

1. The South

She starts off by detailing her time spent in New Orleans, which she makes seem very unappealing:

The images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station. When we got back to the hotel I stood in the shower for almost a half an hour trying to wash myself clean of the afternoon, but then I started thinking about where the water came from, what dark places it had pooled in."

It's hard not to try and read into her take on New Orleans... her serious relationship before her husband was with a man named Noel Parmentel, who was from Louisiana. This is the first time Didion ever openly mentions him (calling him "N"). The only other time she ever referenced him in all of her 14 previous books was in The Year of Magical Thinking where she tells a story about an accusatory note left by "someone I was once very close to." Maybe being in the same state drags up some unfortunate memories? I know it would for me. Otherwise, the only way to learn a little more about her mysterious old boyfriend is to read Tracy Daugherty’s dense biography The Last Love Song.

The Noel stuff I am particularly interested in because, for one, there isn’t much out there about their relationship, and also I am obsessed with her marriage to Dunne so this past relationship is fascinating to me. Didion is famous for making huge, extravagant meals on a whim for 10 or more guests. It was kind of heartwarming to find out that most of what she learnt about cooking she learned from Noel. I also loved this passage when she talked about almost killing him:

We lived together for some years, and I think we most fully understood each other when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife."

I was also obsessed with reading this long, aggressive voicemail he left her. I read the passage over a few times trying to take anything I could from it, but it is pretty rambly, and it probably doesn’t make much sense to anyone who doesn’t know intimate details of their relationship. 

'I guess you think I take up a lot of room in a small bed. I guess you think Schrafft's has chocolate leaves. I guess you think Mr. Earl "Elbow" Reum has more personality than I. I guess you think there are no lesbians in Nevada. I guess you think you know how to wash sweaters by hand. I guess you think you get picked on by Mary Jane and that people serve you bad whiskey. I guess you think you haven't got pernicious anemia. Take those vitamins. I guess you think southerners are somewhat anachronistic.'

- is a message that man left me when I was twenty-two."

It’s strange, her notes in the south almost make her seem more terrified and uncomfortable than when she was in El Salvador in the 1980s with her husband covering the civil war.

After Mississippi, Didion moved on to Alabama where a sign reading “782,000 Alabama baptists welcome you,” greets them. At this point she begins to seem more comfortable than she was in New Orleans. The imagery is less horror-like in a traditional sense, but the racism she sees in the people she meets is just as scary. 

The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago."

Again, Didion has this great way of reporting on specific details, like how everyone seemed to own a confederate flag beach towel, but then will make these sweeping generalizations like how everyone in the south starts on the defensive. Locals seem to be either incredibly proud of their southern roots, or else at least recognize that this is their home. A passage I liked, and kind of related to, came when Didion was visiting a doctor to check on a bruised rib she had:

'I went to school up north,' he said. 'I liked it a lot up there. I thought once I wouldn't mind living up there.'
'But you came back here.' 
'But ...' he said, 'I came back here.'"

One thing you don’t really notice until the end of the south section notes is that Didion is not travelling alone. The entire trip she has spent driving with her husband, but you never hear of him in her notes. You start to wonder where the hell John was while she was exploring radio stations, hair salons and gas stations. She doesn’t mention him until the last page, ending the south portion of the book:

A senseless disagreement on the causeway, ugly words and then silence. We spent a silent night in an airport motel and took the 9:15 National flight to San Francisco. I never wrote the piece.

It feels dark, but that’s how this entire portion reads... uncomfortable, humid, bleak and dreary. 

2. California

This section is very short… it only lasts 14 pages. Some of it deals with the Patty Hearst trial, which Didion expands into an essay in her collection After Henry. She talks a little bit about the trial and about a picture of Hearst and Hearst's family that Didion had tacked to her wall. You learn in Daugherty’s biography of Didion that when she covered the Hearst trial for Rolling Stone she believed that she would learn more in the library than actually attending the trial (to the magazine’s horror). 

This section also plays an important part in the development of Didion’s non-fiction Where I Was From - an account of her pioneer family who made their home in California. 

As usual, this section is permeated with dread and despair, Didion’s staple:

Sometimes I have wanted to know what my grandmother's sister, May Daly, screamed the day they took her to the hospital, for it concerned me, she had fixed on me, sixteen, as the source of the terror she sensed, but I have refrained from asking. In the long run it is better not to know. Similarly, I do not know whether my brother and I said certain things to each other at three or four one Christmas morning or whether I dreamed it, and have not asked.

Her obsession with memories is what I love most about her. Her line about how “memories are the things we wished we no longer remembered” is so powerful to me. And I also find myself thinking about her husband Dunne’s repeated line in a piece of fiction “here comes another shard of memory.” California always seems so bright and sunny, but Didion remembers it differently.

Anyways, this is a long review for such a short book. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a huge Didion fan, like me obviously. For such a small piece of literature, it is obviously super expensive as a brand new hardcover ($26 plus tax). If you aren’t planning on reading every single thing she has ever published, this would be pretty far down on my recommendation list.

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