Joan’s Voice

I read Joan Didion’s latest book in one day, pretty much in one sitting.  Once I started there was no way to stop.  Very much like THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in form, the rhythms and repetitions in this new release will make you feel like you’ve fallen into a gently swirling eddy.  An interesting analogy considering she’s writing about grief and loss.

I’ve always been bothered by critics who dislike her voice, her stance as an outsider looking in on her experience.  They complain there’s not enough of her in the story, that she’s too remote and cold and distant; that, for an essayist, she doesn’t give nearly enough.  I would argue this slight remoteness of voice is what draws me into the narrative.  It’s magnetic.  I believe her.  I trust her.  I’m invested in what she has to say because I feel the friction in her voice.  In her last 2 books, for example, she’s writing about her grief and emotions and failings and pains without falling into a soupy mush of sentimentality.  And at the same time I can feel her resistance to revealing so much about herself.  This tension is what makes it work.

Many a memoir writer could take a lesson from Joan Didion.

What did I like most about BLUE NIGHTS?  It’s rumination on guilt-infused grief.  Many reviewers have focused on the constant repetition and the narrative shift: that the story opens with Quintana at its center, but ends with Joan’s contemplation of her own aging.  I see something completely different.  This is, simply, a story of mothers and daughters.  It opens with Joan’s focus on her maternal guilt; her worry that she was never a good enough mother, that somehow, in putting her career first, she left Quintana too often alone and uncared for.  It ends with Quintana’s guilt that she, in her early death, will leave her frail and aging mother alone and uncared for.  And time runs out before either of them has the chance to get it right.

I’ve read as much press as I can find on BLUE NIGHTS.  Here are the only 2 not to miss:

 

From The Washington Post

Nathan Heller’s article in The New York Times Magazine.  Heller doesn’t merely review the book, choosing instead to discuss the paradoxes in Joan’s writing style.  “To readers who admire her work, she is a journalist of rare candor and style, a writer who unflinchingly peels back the smooth surface of public narrative and the skin of her own psyche, opening both to scrutiny and giving magazine writing a lambent glamour in the process. In the eyes of less enthusiastic readers, she’s a histrionic prose artist, striking poses of stylish despair in precious, incantatory sentences and drawing ominous conclusions from a Ouija board of ironic detail.” 

And NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Joan Didion.  I encourage you to listen.  Listen to this voice for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

(If you don’t have time for either, there’s a very good short interview here, at The Washington Post.)

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15 thoughts on “Joan’s Voice

  1. Jess

    It’s on my bedside table, but it may have to wait. I can’t really deal with the idea of losing a child, even if it’s Didion. It took me quite a while to deal with the idea of losing my beloved husband and make it through her LAST book.

    My vote for a groundbreaking memoir? Half a Life, by Darrin Strauss. Wow. And wow to McSweeny’s for being brave in their publishing approach. Beautiful paper, brave formatting, entire blank pages for emphasis…wow, and again, wow.

    1. Teri Post author

      I’d start with THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Or, if you’d like some shorter pieces, her essay collection THE WHITE ALBUM has some great ones — “In Bed” being the most known.

      1. Averil Dean

        I’ll take any recommendation from you. I’m stockpiling reading material for the holidays, when I plan to have a month-long reading orgy. Joan’s invited.

    2. Downith

      Only thing I’ve read by her is The Year of Magical Thinking which was on my TBR book for ages, but I finally managed this summer at the cottage. It is well worth a read.

  2. macdougalstreetbaby

    I could sit and listen to your commentary on literature all day long!
    And I most definitely envy the rate at which you read. How do you do it?????

    1. Teri Post author

      I’m competing with my husband. Which is futile, because I will never never win. Plus, he works all day and I’m just here eating the bon bons, so you can see what I have to contend with. 😉

  3. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    I need another book to add to my TBR list like I need another pet in the house…

    Magical Thinking’s been on that list for quite a while, and after reading this I will move it up a few notches. I’d have to work up to this one; guilt and grief over the loss of a child might be more than I’m up to these days.

    You really are a prolific reader. How many do you average a month?

    1. Teri Post author

      Reading all these books keeps me from adding more dogs to the house. It’s a lot cheaper and a lot less time consuming than a new dog.

      I’m not really prolific — what I am is competitive. My husband reads way more than me and I’m just trying to stay relevant

  4. Lyra

    Teri,
    I love your reviews. I’m so far behind, and yet now I have two TBR piles, one specially designated as your recommendations. This is getting a little ridiculous.
    What do I do with all of the amazing books screaming to be read?!
    I’d ask for advice but you guys are like a bunch of junkies in the alley offering my next hit…something must be done.
    I need to quit my job. There. Phew. Problem solved.

    1. Teri Post author

      But I still haven’t finished Kavalier and Clay, so you’re way ahead of me!

      I keep thinking the holidays are coming, as if that means there will be time for more books. Ha!

  5. erikamarks

    Teri, I too have not read any of her work but been so both in awe and in fear of the depth of grief she has delved into–like Jess said, I don’t know if I can brace myself for the pain of reading about losing a child. I know I would struggle to shake myself from the world she presents–but then, isn’t that the point?

    That she grapples with her own guilt–the idea of that is so heart-breaking to me. In the end, do you feel as if she is seeking absolution, or simply wanting confirmation of her own worst fears?

    Either way, I am committed to reading her work. MAGICAL THINKING may be a good place to start.

    1. Teri Post author

      I don’t think she’s seeking any of these things. When asked this in one interview — why write about this? — she says 2 things that make complete sense to me:

      1. She’s a writer. And writers tend to write as opposed to ‘not writing’ things down.

      2. When something looks her in the face she has no choice but to look back.

      I remember Kathryn Harrison saying she wrote her controversial memoir, THE KISS, because it was getting in the way of her other writing, that she just couldn’t work around it anymore. Writing about it cleared her mind enough to write about other things. I totally get this. While I’m dying to write a different book than the memoir I’m working on right now, I also know I can’t move on until it’s finished.

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