Tag Archives: Joan Didion

Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

—–

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My old self came knocking at 4am

Notes taken

Notebook keeper

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

In an era of relentless self-improvement, of life-affirming social media shares and leaning in, we can be quick to forget our former selves.

If only they felt the same. Or kept sociable hours. Instead they return, as Joan Didion points out, unannounced and in the small hours, demanding our attention.

Sometimes this means attractive company. Who wouldn’t want to meet the courageous, if shaken, mountaineer who stumbled off Mont Blanc after a successful ascent? Can I hear his story? Again?

But for every Jekyll in crampons there’s his alter ego, the past self we’d prefer didn’t exist – or stayed incarcerated in whatever mental chamber we imprison our inner Hydes, our Walter Mittys or Ignatius J Reillys.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner realised. The same sentiment runs through Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping A Notebook’ (anthologised in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and quoted above). She suggests writing down ideas and observations; the information, reviewed years later, will provide us with clues and details about who once were, and who were are now.

Past self

Past self

It’s 50 years since Didion’s essay was published. For most, notetaking in 2016 takes the form of social media posts, and reviewing idle scrolling, or clicking Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ button. The difference now is that our notes are public and, usually, sanitised. The 4am callers tend not to appear.

Cast away, the People We Used To Be are surely unhappy to be erased from our histories. “It all comes back,” Didion repeatedly warns, hinting that, even if we live peacefully with ourselves, we can continue to expect those early morning visitors.

And so I’m on nodding, if not conversational, terms with a young man sick and very tired in an Amtrak waiting room in San Francisco, or the same person, a year or two older, who tore off his time, unused, around Dublin in the early Noughties. And with my other, older, Hydes and Mittys and Reillys, all of whom linger at times in the morning gloom.

It’s just as well that they do. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion cautions. And if I won’t remember my past selves, who will?

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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Three cities in three paragraphs

The Phoenix Park, Dublin. Pic: CGP Grey

The Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Pic: CGP Grey

The One City, One Book event run annually in Dublin always strikes me as a tease.

Whenever I read of this year’s nominated book I usually think: what of X, or Y – when will Z get the credit it deserves?

Some years ago a visiting friend asked me what books she should read ahead of a visit to the city. I was stumped. Who would to attempt Ulysses as a primer for a city break? Kavanagh’s Baggotonia represents Dublin but just one part of it.

I’ve found myself similarly stumped when travelling abroad. For years I’ve sought out The Great London Novel – to no avail. Dickens, Greene or Ackroyd each wrote part of what that city is, but as the deeper I read the more I’m left with a sense of the enormity of the task, the impossibility of knowing the place through literature.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Twitter, or a symptom of distraction, but lately I’ve turned to extracts, simple paragraphs, as triggers to evoke a memory or mood of certain places.

In the past year I’ve spent time in three world cities – all of which are of course impossible to depict in a single paragraph. But if I had to pick…

Jones Street, NYC

Jones Street, NYC

…my first choice would be Pete Hamill’s Whitman-esque evocation of his home city in Downtown: My Manhattan, an account written by a man – as I always envisage him – standing alone on that island’s west side piers on a late Autumn afternoon, just before sundown.

Go down to the North River and the benches that run along the west side of Battery Park City. Watch the tides or the blocks of ice in winter; they have existed since the time when the island was empty of man. Gaze at the boats. Look across the water at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, the place to which so many of the New York tribe came in order to truly live…Gaze at its ruins and monuments. Walk its sidewalks and run fingers upon the stone and bricks and steel of our right-angled streets. Breathe the air of the river breeze.

My wife is from Los Angeles and I’ve spent time there, but not enough to fully appreciate the astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success. Joan Didion understood the distance between the two, writing in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Venice Beach, California

Venice Beach, California

The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.

Finally, to Joyce – and Dublin. Not Leopold Bloom’s city wanderings, but rather those of Mr Duffy in the Dubliners‘ story ‘A Painful Case’, who pauses on a hilltop in the Phoenix Park and looks over the city stretching eastward along the Liffey, thinking of his deceased lover.

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying… He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin. Beyond the river he saw a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge Station, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness, obstinately and laboriously. It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.

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