Joan Didion’s Pen Prick

“Reading Joan Didion on any subject is like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold,” so writes Boris Kachka in his New York Books review of Joan Didion’s 2011 memoir Blue Nights. I include this line, partly to send you to Kachka’s review, and partly to admit my own envy, wishing I had written that sentence.

Didion, as Kachka and others note, is one of America’s best essayists and writers. Play It As It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer are two of the best novels written about the American malaise: that overwhelming sense that we seek progress (say it with a long o) for the sake of progress. Characters drive the L.A. freeway without any clear sense of destination but somehow driving is better than sitting still. Didion crafts characters who exist in that white space of daily life when nothing is happening. She probes those moments when we are left to our own thoughts and the intracacies of our psyche. For Didion, these are the nightmares of American existence. Being alone gives our imagination time to work. Dig deep into the human heart, Didion seems to warn us, and you risk uncovering a reality you didn’t expect.

The bubble we create to protect us is a product of our culture. “Look busy. Jesus is coming,” the bumper sticker tells us. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” we might tell our kids (and our employees). The essence of American culture is production. Self-reflection is for hippies. Stay-focused. We’ve reached this point in American higher education where we ask students to choose a major within the first semester. We’ve started asking kids in junior high to take surveys so we can identify future careers. Doing so allows us to move efficiently from childhood into a field of study, into a degree, into a job, into a house, into a suburb.

We place ourselves in the bubble of social expectations. We dress, act, eat, live based on the values imposed culturally upon the choices we make. Didion explores this contradiction, this anxiety that we perhaps aren’t choosing. Mariah, in Play It As It Lays, is a commodified product of Hollywood culture. She chose to model, but in doing so, forfeited her identity to the expectation of the idea. Her life became a continuous loop of performance: her work in front of the camera defined the world’s expectations for her behavior, forcing her to wear the face she created on screen. Her persona was defined by the movie. Easy enough until she was alone. That’s the nightmare Didion explores–what do we do with the white space in the script? Do we stay in character or ad lib?

As a culture, we expect consistency. When Mariah was out on the town, the public expected her to act like an actress. She had leeway to do certain things because those are the things we expect. We might dislike this easy categorization, but we dogmatically insist upon such things. We expect certain behaviors from certain groups. When Mark Zuckererg shows up to Wall Street wearing a hoodie, we protest because he’s not wearing a suit. You can supply your own examples, I’m sure.

This expectation isn’t only external, though. At some point, we succumb to the bubble of our own publically crafted bubble. Didion includes “In the Realm of the Fisher King” in her 1992 essay collection After Henry. This essay is a review, of sorts, of the Reagan presidency post Nancy Reagan’s My Turn with inside information from Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s speechwriter.

Didion’s essay, roughly summarized (I recommend you read her essay), is that the Reagan presidency was marked by their hollywood past as performers: actors performed and studios took care of them. The Reagan’s treated the white house, clothes, people, government as part of the props of Washington DC. For better or for worse, the Reagans expected the script to be followed. Ronald Reagan’s apparent obliviousness, Didion seems to arge, was less about his lack of intelligence than a willful indifference to how the script was written–he just needed the final copy.

Like great literature, great essayists capture the mood of any particular time, but the core ideas transcend that particular historical moment. I’m revisiting Didion’s essays this week after listening to Mitt Romney’s post-election response. Like Reagan, Romney has existed in a particular life-style surrounded by narrowly defined ideals that he, quite frankly, can’t imagine or accept that he lost the election. The only explanation he develops seems small-minded and out of touch, but, as Didion’s essay reminds us, Romney is a product of the bubble of his own wealth and entitlement, ironic considering his criticism of the 47%. Reagan was a big picture guy who waited patiently while the script was written. Details are for writers, handlers, director, and producers.

And Didion reminds us Reagan’s sense of identity isn’t unique: we’re all in a bubble. Thankfully, writers like Didion are there to prick little holes in the membrane, forcing us to confront the world outside.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Joan Didion’s Pen Prick

  1. Pingback: Living in bubbles – pop goes the Philippines! « Get Real Post

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