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Reviews | Joan Didion inspired generations of impostors

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But I think there is also something almost elusive about Didion’s early days, something that explains why so many people looked to his early work for inspiration. Just as she described New York City as a place for “the very young” in “Goodbye to all that., ” “The White Album” and in particular “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” can be read as role models for young writers who also may not understand what they really mean, but still want to say it; who want to be honest, but haven’t really found the courage to write in the denominational style they stole from Didion.

She comes across in these early works as a largely unimpressed stranger who witnesses the grubby efforts of everyone from the Black Panthers to The Doors, but admits she doesn’t quite understand why they are doing what they are doing. She meets young people who have been excluded from society and can only really tell you about the drugs they use, the grinning rituals they perform and the devious way they prove “the center just didn’t hold”. that this means. She always tells her readers, as she did in the first paragraph of “Bethlehem,“I didn’t know what I wanted to know. “

As I get older, I find myself increasingly disappointed by the impartiality of these early works. Why was she so skeptical of the idealism of her peers? Why did she always talk about being a “Fifth Generation Californian”? Why did she write in 1970, “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect the fate of man in the slightest way, I would go to that barricade”? Hadn’t she seen the changes that had taken place in the country because so many of her fellow citizens had done just that? Was she rejecting the civil rights movement, the black, Latino and Third World consciousness movements that sprang up in Berkeley, her alma mater? Why, as Louis Menand pointed out in The New Yorker, Has Didion so often opted for the beautifully written but ultimately opaque conclusion?

“She could see, with the x-ray clarity with which she seems to have been born, what was happening on the street,” Mr Menand wrote. “She could show it to her readers; but she couldn’t explain it. As Didion herself wrote, “It is easy to see the beginning of things and more difficult to see the end.”

These knotty but sometimes trite proclamations laid the groundwork for Didion imitators like myself who always signal an ambiguity that they could easily dispel with a few lines or a phone call. Once the line is delivered, they dramatically stop as their readers’ minds explode in wonder, not at the truth that has not been revealed, but at the writer’s grim honesty. I once thought that all good writing had to be rooted in such bold confessions of what the author didn’t know, but I began to suspect that was because during all those years that I was imitating young Didion, I mostly saw writing as a performance in which I was the main audience.

And yet, while I admire the late Didion which for the most part dropped the affectations of its earlier work without compromising the steely prose and allure of Joan Didion, its central character, I do not find myself at the revisit in the same way that I compulsively reread “John Wayne: A Love Song” or “The White Album”. There is also a capacity in all of these statements of not knowing. We imagine that we might be able to fill in the blanks like she would.

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