Joan Didion and the female imagination

Almost three years ago, I highlighted a great article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” books.

Well, Flanagan has surpassed herself in an article in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic about Joan Didion – entitled “The Autumn of Joan Didion”.  Unlike so many news and cultural outlets these days, The Atlantic appears to make all of its content free online – and thus I, for one, am keen to support them as much as possible.  So buy their magazine (and then throw out the paper copy once you have finished with it – or better yet, pass it on to a close friend – and keep looking at the online links if you need to go back to it, as I am now) and patronise their advertisers. Keep them in business, please, with writers like this one.

I am not in the core Didion demographic, not being of the female persuasion, but I have always enjoyed her work (although not the recent efforts – more on those, perhaps, another time), particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays.  Here is one description by Flanagan:

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures.

Or this:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

But what makes Flanagan’s writing so memorable and touching is her interweaving of the personal with the cultural and the historical.  She (Flanagan) grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the Chair of the UC Berkeley English Department.  Her description of the dinner which Didion attended at Flanagan’s house (Flanagan was 14 at the time) and Didion’s major lecture on the campus during that visit, is one of the best in recent English-language essay writing.  This was Flanagan’s view at the time:

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

The personal, the political, the literary, the historical all combine here in an evocative and moving cultural memoir about female writers in America.

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