The Center Will Not Hold: Joan Didion

By: Bill Whaley
5 November, 2017

Nephew Griffin Dunne’s documentary film portrait of his Aunt Joan Didion might be a eulogy of the 82-year-old American writer, a writer who documented the demise of the “Dream” and rise of chaos during the sixties in California from Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles, including the Rise of Reagan from L.A. to Sacramento to Washington D.C. The clips in the film capture the times referred to in the essays. The documentary is both intimate and artfully edited.

Didion’s work captures the timeless commentary of William Butler Yeats poem from The Second Coming, the writer’s sources for the alpha and omega of her titles from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (1968) her essays, admonitions to look, really look at what is (was) happening in the sixties to The Center Will Not Hold (2017), this, her living eulogy, a farewell, in a way, to the current madness.

I’m not sure when I began reading Didion, certainly in magazines or periodicals  before I returned to college in 1987 and began teaching her essays to undergraduates in the summer of 1989. She grounds her style in a private voice of neurasthenia, the psychology of nerves and lassitude, migraines and brittle sensory responses, the fragments of life collated in a moody recap of particular effects that rise to the level of public malaise. Whether at home in Sacramento, where she comments on the “guerrilla war we never understood” among her family and aging aunts, or in New York right after college where she characterizes the effects on those who “stayed too long at the fair,” she captures the age, the time, the place.

In her second collection of essays The White Album (68) she begins a coincidental and continuing commentary (Many Mansions) on Gov. Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Sacramento that she refines in her New York Review of Books essays from the late 80s to the late 90s, collected later in After Henry (In the Realm of the Fisher King) and Political Fictions (The West Wing of Oz). She analyzes Reagan as the working actor and product of shooting scripts, who hits his marks, brings the film in on time, and sees the world  in melodramatic good guys v. the bad guys. From reading Didion in the 90s, I understood for the first time the motives and method of the actor, who played the President. Her insights about Reagan remind us of a way to think about today’s reality TV star in the White House.

Like other New Journalists of the late sixties and early seventies, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Didion rubbed up against the traditional boundaries of fiction and non-fiction and used the form of the personal essay as well as her incisive wit, insight, and experience to transcend the boundaries of journalism and imaginative writing. Like James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf, she synthesizes private life and public spectacle, creating a way to experience the lamentable and celebratory human condition.

Didion’s detached attitude, her seeming aloof persona allows her to confront the disintegration or chaos and death not as a reformer but as a poetic observer. Despite her disclaimers, she does not flinch from the horror but girds herself to embrace the worst, all the while thinking how “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011) she makes good on the first line of  The White Album, 1979 above about the deaths respectively of her husband, John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo.  These stories, too, like the film, are elegies on a life.

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