Joan Didion comes from California. Her best book was published in 1968. This is most of what you need to know.
Here’s the rest of it. In that book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she was, she said in her preface, dealing ‘directly and flatly with the evidence of atomisation, the proof that things fall apart’. If you got beyond that, though, things did improve. The title essay, for example, was a very funny description of how daft hippies were in San Francisco in 1967. ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ was a droll account of a San Bernadino lady called Lucille Miller who had burned her husband Cork to death in their 1964 Volkswagen, in the unrealised hope of collecting his insurance. ‘Marrying Absurd’ malevolently savoured the bad taste o f weddings in Las Vegas.
Didion’s speciality was, and is, the deadpan narration of stupid events. In that time and that place stupidity was in flower. They were Didion’s great days. Having in herself a rich streak of senselessness (atomisation, I expect) which harmonised with what was going on in the world outside, she set it all down easily. Thus the dollybird deadpan.
It never worked quite so well again . Her best novel, Play It As It Lays from 1971, had senseless things happening to people, to be sure, and a senseless enough way of telling about them (chopped up chapters, sentences articulated only with ‘ands’) but the book was all manner and no matter. She seemed unable to believe in other people long enough to construct a true novel. Purportedly a toughly realistic view of evacuated Hollywood lives, this was only a report from inside Didion’s questionably furnished head. Ronald Firbank was more outward bound.
Nonetheless Joan Didion became influential and feted. For example, she is one of the people our own bright light Martin Amis has drawn upon, as we may politely say. His 1975 grooh yurgh novel Dead Babies was a homage to her, amongst others. And he echoes her elsewhere too. Didion had a diverting scene in Play It As It Lays in which the heroine is fucked after a party by a Californian actor, who climaxes with the aid of amyl nitrite and the urgent instruction ‘don’t move’, and further tells her, as he passes out, ‘Wake me up in three hours … With your tongue.’ Amis was so taken by this, in its way surely rather resourceful, remark, that in Other People he indulgently allowed himself to give a speeded up version of it – ‘Wake me in an hour…’ – to a cretinous London thug. (No, not relevant but I thought you’d like to know.)
In America anyway Joan Didion is still the darling of clever liberals. The New York Review of Books carried virtually all of Miami as a serial last year. These liberals love her because, though she now writes about large-scale political events, she tackles them in much the same way she used to tackle Californian curios. She still shows you things falling apart, awful things, things that don’t make sense. This flatters the sensibilities of her readership who are pretty sure the things they disagree with don’t make sense too. So in the elegant company of Ms Didion, this readership has moved on from shivering deliciously at uncool hippies to shivering more acutely at uncool Reaganite America and its activities.
Didion’s last non-fi ction book was Salvador, a report on how frightening and mad it was there, and how little sense United States involvement with it made. She puts this over by playing the innocent abroad – no preconceptions and no answers either. As a ploy this works because (between you and me) we do actually know what to think about El Salvador and Reaganism, don’t we? And her dispassionate, careful passivity about things, the way the book is not an indictment, only makes it all the more devastating, wouldn’t you say?
But in Miami the mask slips. Miami is not about Miami, but about the Cuban exiles living there and their relationship with the government in Washington, and it sets out to show how awful both sides of this relationship are. The story is simple enough. The Cubans want to go back and fight, despising all those who seek to moderate this policy, and the Americans pretend to want to help them without ever, since the Bay of Pigs fiasco, doing more than making a show of it. What is left then is a war of words and it is this that Didion chronicles. She has, bizarrely, cheaply, nothing to say about Castro’s Cuba. She scornfully exposes the follies of two sides of a triangle without stooping to consider the third.
So the book is about two different languages – the one used by Cubans in exile, the other by Washington in dealing with them. In Didion’s grandiose vocabulary: ‘To spend time in Miami is to acquire a certain fluency in cognitive dissonance. What Allen Dulles called the disposal problem is what Miami calls la lucha.’ Both these phrases recur. At first you feel pleased with yourself for having remembered them from the first time but soon it makes you cross.
La lucha means ‘the struggle’, ‘la lucha not only against Fidel Castro but against his allies, and his agents, and all those who could conceivably be believed to have aided or encouraged him.’
‘“Don’t forget that we have a disposal problem” is what Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr, tells us that Allen Dulles said on March 11, 1961, by way of warning John F Kennedy about the possible consequences of aborting the projected Cuban invasion and cutting loose what the CIA knew to be a volatile and potentially vengeful asset, the 2506 Brigade’ (of armed exiled Cubans).
So the speakers of these two different languages have no hope of understanding one another. Didion’s first point seems to be the surprisingly coarse one that the Cubans are hopelessly foreign (she has no sympathetic interest in their ethnicity since they are also rightwing and often rich) and unAmerican. Her other one is that Washington talks gobbledegook about Central America, which it does, to be sure. Beyond this she does not advance. She makes no suggestions. She merely deplores.
What particularly vexes her about these Cubans is that they believe in things, passionately. This strikes her as very low. She sarcastically refers to such memorabilia as the 2506 Brigade flag, cherished by the Cubans, as ‘splinters of the true cross.’
What gets her goat about Washington is that it is not ‘clear’. It gives out only indirect ‘signals’ about its intentions. It doesn’t have any steady aim. Possibly what vexes her most about this is that the White House’s haze of verbiage makes it difficult for her to pin them down on an enormity.
The book fades away in diffuse resentment and no more, despite the lofty diction. Didion’s prose, laid out on the narrow pages of the American edition, is strangely Miltonic; cumulative, laden sentences, fit for Alan Coren to parody. The first sentence is self-conscious enough: ‘Havana vanities, come to dust in Miami’. The second begins: ‘On the August night in 1933 when…’ The third: ‘On the March night in 1952 when…’
Didion’s lexical and syntactic repetitiveness is meant to suggest that she is fiercely battering on the subject in hand. It is an empty rhetoric of accuracy. Her characteristic posture, if it came to charades, would be that adopted by dim lecturers, making themselves ears or horns to act out quote marks.
But then, near the end of the book, all this rarefied disdain fails her. She is talking about the obscurity of recent Washington briefings:
‘Other things were less clear than they might have been. One thing that was less clear, in those high years of the Reagan administration when we had not yet begun to see just how the markers were being moved, was how many questions there might later be about what had been the ends and what the means, what the problem and what the solution; about what, among people who measured the consequences of what they said and did exclusively in terms of approval ratings affected and network news calibrated and pieces of legislation passed or not passed, had come first, the war for the minds of mankind or the private funding network or the need to make a move for those troops on the far frontiers. What was also less clear then, particularly in Washington,’ etc.
This is, I think , the only social solidarity ‘we’ in the book. It sticks out like a sore thumb, or a sheep’s bleat at a recital. They moved the goal-posts on us, Brian! Not fair. What ‘cognitive dissonance’ means then is not just ‘it doesn’t make sense’ but more plainly, ‘I don’t understand’. Not so smart after all.