Joan Didion’s legacy: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

“Joan Didion uses language and controls structure so artfully that from the welter of futile speech and action she dramatizes so vividly comes a clear statement on the human condition,” wrote Elizabeth Woods Shaw in a 1977 America review of Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer. “The mirror she holds up to nature reflects crazily angled, grotesque images; but the reflections themselves are so sharp that watching them provides a rare aesthetic pleasure.”

Shaw observed that Didion was capable of both conjuring up modern horrors and offering solace by reminding us that there was still some point to it all. “It is terrifying to be made to realize how high the flood of meaninglessness has risen beneath the familiar surface of life,” she writes of Didion’s prose. “Yet, as long as an ordering intelligence can shape chaos into meaning in the very act of imitating it, we need not despair. The spirit is still moving over the waters.”

“There’s something uneasy about the Los Angeles air today, some unnatural stillness and some tension.”

When Joan Didion died on Dec. 23 in New York City at the age of 87, the many obituaries and encomia that followed noted her reliability as an observer—both in fiction and in reporting—but also her ability to bring her own idiosyncratic perspective to everything she wrote. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that such a representative of the “New Journalism,” with its focus on unconventional literary technique and individual perspectives, grew up in California, the subject of much of her early writing and historically a place where, well, idiosyncrasy finds toleration—and more often than not, celebration.

I grew up in Southern California and have always found the opening lines of Didion’s 1964 essay “Los Angeles Notebook” to be her finest writing—eerie and portentous but also rather matter-of-fact at the same time. She writes as an outsider and a resident. (Didion was born in Sacramento, California. It is a unique place but a completely different California than Los Angeles. Here she is feeling the hungry, restless feeling that certain Southern California winds cause.

Los Angeles’ air is tense this afternoon. There is a strange stillness and tension. It means that tonight a Santa Ana, a wind from the northeast, will blow. This hot wind will blow down through the Cajon Passes and San Gorgonio Passes blowing up sandstorms along Route 66 drying out the hills and nerves to flash point. We will be able to see smoke in the canyons and hear sirens at night for a few more days. Although I have never heard or read about Santa Ana, I do know that it is due. In fact, almost everyone I’ve seen today also knows this. It’s something we feel. The baby is anxious. The maid complains. I revive a waning argument between the telephone company and then lay down, surrendering to whatever it is in my air. Living with Santa Ana is to be able to accept, whether consciously or not, a deeply mechanical view of human behavior.

A thing of beauty—and, in typical Didion fashion, it serves as an introduction to the story of a macabre and somewhat inexplicable Southern California murder. Are supercharged ions from the wind bringing felonious impulses? Or is the natural world a convenient excuse to all the problems we cause in our daily lives? That question can be found lurking underneath much of Didion’s writing.

Does our natural environment provide a convenient excuse to the tragedies we all make in life?

Her books—and those of her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, whose novel True confessions is another masterpiece of writing about Los Angeles—were often reviewed in the pages of America, which includes her autobiographical accounts about Dunne’s deaths (Year of Magical Thinking) and of their daughter, Quintana Roo (Blue Nights).

In 2006, America Review of Year of Magical Thinking, Bill Gunlocke notes Didion’s courage and fortitude in making her own grief the object of her investigation; she was a new widow but nevertheless still the inquisitive reporter. “As she has always done, she burrows into the piles of details to learn about what happened. She works hard to learn the language of emergency departments and autopsies. She asks the apartment building’s elevator operator what he remembers. She recalls the night and the tragic events that followed. She talks to herself and puts quotation marks around her words,” he writes. “She lets the readers in, so that they grasp her solitude and loss in ways they had never thought about such solitude and loss before, and in ways Didion hadn’t either.”

Her recollections of the life she and Dunne shared—“the California homes, the meals with literary friends and movie people, the dinners with just the two of them together, the swimming pools, the travels, the clothes”—are all “recollections that evoke a mood, an atmosphere,” Gunlocke writes. “She gives the reader what the reader appreciates most. That is what makes even Joan Didion’s sad tale somehow stimulating to read. Wherever she finds herself, be it in sunlight or loneliness, her experience is palpable to the reader, who is transported to where she is—and wants to be there with her.”

An assessment of 2012 for AmericaThis is Blue Nights, Bill Williams notes that Didion’s constant rumination on what it means to age (and to die) gave her prose a heavy weight in her autobiographical works, including her reflections on the life and death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo. (In case you’re wondering, her name comes from the Mexican state.) Roo lived a challenging adult life. She was diagnosed with various disorders, including borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and manic depression. She died of pancreatitis at 39 after what Didion called a “cascade of medical crises.”

“Didion ponders Quintana’s life and death in spare prose that is at once insightful, depressing and random. The book is as much a meditation on the author’s own fear of aging and illness as it is a lament about the loss of an only child,” Williams writes. “Although reviewers have praised Didion for her honesty and directness in Blue NightsThe pervasiveness of anxiety, fear, and guilt quickly leads to melancholy. Recently turning 77, the author seems to be living in constant fear of her health and aging. The pages brim with her maladies and frailties.”

In Blue NightsDidion herself admits that she has been living in denial for much of her adult life. “Only yesterday,” she writes, “I could still do arithmetic, remember telephone numbers, rent a car at the airport and drive it out of the lot without freezing, stopping at the key moment, feet already on the pedals but immobilized by the question of which is the accelerator and which the brake.” But at 77, having lost her husband and daughter, she finds herself losing even the creative powers that made her so successful as a writer. And yet she chronicles this loss, too, confessing that her “cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether.”

Most remarkable about Didion’s autobiographical works is the fact that they were not what made her famous. Instead, her essay collections and reporting on places such as El Salvador and Miami, along with her screenplays, were what brought her fame. She was able to make any topic interesting on the page.

Joan Didion could make anything intriguing on the page, including herself.


If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. Every week, we’ll feature literary criticism and reviews on a writer or group of writers. Our archives span over a century. We hope that this will allow us to give you more detailed coverage about our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other columns from the Catholic Book Club

Enjoy reading!

James T. Keane