A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, it has the metaphorical power of great fiction. While younger generations may read her as a window into the mythic 1960s or September 11, it’s impossible not to see, too, how Didion’s examination of racial bias and the Central Park Five, Reagan-era El Salvador, or the smug, violent, white-male carelessness that characterized the infamous Spur Posse in Lakewood, California, in the early 1990s anticipated the deeply troubling politics of today. Still, there’s an energy to her writing—what she might call its “shimmer”—that goes beyond a given piece’s surface story, and that sheds an awful and beautiful light on a world we half see but don’t want to see, one in which potential harm is a given and hope is a flimsy defense against dread. Didion’s ethos is a way of seeing what’s particular to the world that made her, and that ultimately reveals the writer to herself.
We are all from somewhere. It’s the artist’s job to question the values that went into the making of that somewhere. What you notice in Didion’s nonfiction is how her clarity becomes even sharper when disquiet rattles the cage of the quotidian. “I’m not interested in the middle road—maybe because everyone’s on it,” she said in a 1979 interview with the critic Michiko Kakutani. “Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me…. A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes.”
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor