Joan Didion’s L.A.

She put words to the city’s subtle currents of menace and dread. Her work will stand as long as the city does.

Certain writers are unavoidable, whether one would care to avoid them or not. Joan Didion, who died this morning at age 87, was as germane to Los Angeles as the weather, but I suspect she would have rejected that metaphor as imprecise. Didion was not sunlight, squall, nor even—God forbid—the Santa Ana winds she wrote so indelibly about, but she was nevertheless a kind of climate.

For those of us who grew up here, she was the one who put words to the city’s subtle currents of menace and dread, who named its murders, and who—far more importantly—connected it to the world outside. Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed a desert, perhaps was a desert, with its sleek metallic surfaces lightly dusted with cocaine. There was water, however barely, but there was no culture, or so the movies (who were we to disbelieve them?) told us. When Woody Allen, who seemed at the time a credible witness on this point, asserted that L.A.’s one cultural advantage was that you could make a right turn on red, I almost believed him. Almost, because I had read Joan Didion and knew that she lived here, hence could count at least two.

I first read Didion when I was a teenager, but my awareness of her dated back a little further: my parents (father, a talent agent; mother, a screenwriter) shared a housekeeper with Didion and her husband, the novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, a fact that notates both my own inherent privilege, and, it must be said since it is pertinent to her work, Didion’s own. I couldn’t help but think of her, then, as my mother’s shadow twin, infinitely more successful and much more amply glamorous (a feat, because my mother was glamorous), but nevertheless. My mom gave me an essay to read called “Why I Write,” and I—all of about thirteen—pored over Didion’s words trying to find in them an understanding of both my mother’s profession and the one I hoped to carve out for myself, novelist. Writing was named as “a hostile act,” and as “the tactic of a secret bully . . . an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Was this who I wanted to be? Because I was still a boy, I didn’t yet grasp that Didion’s “hostile act” (I missed the irony, the quickness of her tone as well) was in fact an act of survival, that for her—or certainly for my mother, and for countless other women of a generation that had been raised into the stultifying sexism of the 1950s—“the act of saying I” (as Didion put it) was one of radical necessity. I was too young for that essay, but I couldn’t shake loose of it, nor of The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, all of which I hopped upon, a little precociously, as I plucked them from my parents’ shelves.

But I did apprehend that she was inscribing this place—“this place,” Los Angeles, this place Hollywood, this place Romaine Avenue, Banyan Street, the Manson murders, I Magnin, Las Vegas, the entire American West—in ways I would never forget. Or rather, would never escape: Los Angeles wasn’t particularly real, not even to someone who was born here, before she named it. And once she had, doing so in the ways that were so intrinsic to her—without pity or sentimentality, without romance (like Chandler’s) or scorn (like Nathanael West’s), but rather with a surpassing and matchless clarity—once she had done that, Los Angeles became a little too real; I no longer knew what to do with it besides run as fast and as far as I could.

There were those who did build upon what she’d started—Bret Easton Ellis with Less Than Zero— but he had (I suspect) to strike fast. As Flannery O’Connor once said of William Faulkner, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” For those of us—the rest of us—who were inclined to tackle L.A. as a literary subject, Didion’s influence was thereafter not merely “inescapable” but elemental. You had to contend with it just as you did with any other serious fact about the city. To ignore it would have been like ignoring the 10, or the Pacific.

This is the mark of any great writer, of course. There are greats who change the reader, and greats who—and this is far, far less common—change the landscape around the reader. Hemingway did, and Dickens, and Toni Morrison. Didion did.

In certain respects, this makes her harder to read. One is always scrabbling through the surfaces, the received ideas about the work—which are inseparable from the work, insofar as the work has penetrated the culture deeply enough to generate those ideas to begin with—but of course the moment one sinks into the sentences, those beautiful, unadorned instruments on which you might cut yourself if you’re not careful (“The house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933 . . .”) tell me you’re not right there even before she gets to her neighborhood’s “sinistral inertia.” You forget almost everything else. You’re in her world because you already were. Her work exists to remind you of that.

Naturally, such writing is not a “hostile act” at all, but rather the opposite: a loving one, a gesture that is charitable enough to tell the truth. As with many loving acts, one sometimes has to grow into it, to be ready to receive everything it has to offer. And once you do, you understand there is nothing left to run from: Joan Didion’s ruthless intelligence made of L.A. not fantasy, but actuality. Her work will stand as long as this city does.

About the writer: Matthew Specktor is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is author, most recently, of the bestselling memoir Always Crashing in the Same Car.

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