Anxious in America: On writing the life of Joan Didion

Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion is most interesting when it comes to highlighting the complex dynamics inherent in a long and singular writing career.

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Discussing the psychic fragility lurking behind the machismo and bluster of Ernest Hemingway, one of my university professors cited a trenchant observation by the great American literary critic Malcolm Cowley: “No complete son of a bitch ever wrote a good sentence.”

Literary biography must, by its very nature, play upon the pathologies, frailties and immense internal conflicts of the writer ­under narrative observation. For if there is one underlying rule of this “What made them write?” genre, it is: the messier the life, the better the read.

Consider Blake Bailey’s splendidly ver­tiginous biographies of Richard Yates (a bipolar alcoholic), and John Cheever (the impeccable suburban Wasp who was picking up men in the toilets at Grand Central Station). And then look at how Adam Begley’s quiet, intelligent life of John Updike was, in the end, elegantly anaemic. Because, ­outside of discreet womanising, chain-smoking and being a somewhat distant papa, Updike led a life that was a model of protean industry and rectitude. No wife-beating. No Percodan habit. No two bottles of cheap Scotch before lunchtime. No prurient fun for the reader.

Which brings us to Tracy Daugherty’s eminently readable yet frequently fussy biography of Joan Didion. For those of us who came of serious reading age in the 1970s, Didion was a blast of skewed narrative air after the metafictions of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, the fabulist cartwheels of Kurt Vonnegut, the experimental gamesmanship of Donald Barthelme (a previous biographical subject for Daugherty). Here was a writer with an unapologetically Californian sensibility who, in such impressive early novels as Run River (1963) and Play It As It Lays (1970), spoke volumes about the disconnect at the heart of the postwar American soul, in a prose notable for the exactitude of its cadences and language.

Didion’s narrative voice became one of the most distinctive in the modern American canon. So, too, her canny ability to marry a coolly distanced observational sensibility with her own, pronounced hyper-fragility. For anyone wanting to chart the frequently warped body politic of American life from the Kennedy era onwards, the essays and reportage brought together in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) remain essential benchmarks – just as the novels offer a challenging and original take on modern anxiety.

As previously noted, Didion was a daughter of the West: a venerable Californian, raised in the arid sterility of its state capital, Sacramento. She was being groomed for a life of suburban ennui. Her biggest setback in late adolescence was being denied admission to the elite precincts of Stanford University. So she went to the University of California, Berkeley instead (hardly a shabby alternative) and landed an internship with Mademoiselle magazine (an early, more corseted version of Cosmopolitan), which, in turn, got her to New York.

Her early years of journalistic struggle showed little in the way of high drama. One major love affair. Time on William F Buckley’s National Review (yes, Didion was always a serious political conservative, voting for the ultra-hawkish Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race – though her politics have become more nuanced and less orthodox in later life).

She met a young journalist with an Ivy League pedigree and Irish Catholic baggage, John Gregory Dunne. They married. Their domestic life was frequently volatile. They moved west, determined to play the role of literary writers in the then-unliterary city of Los Angeles. Didion couldn’t fall pregnant. They adopted a baby girl and gave her the name of a Mexican state: Quintana Roo. Didion’s career shot off ahead of Dunne’s. But, courtesy of Dunne’s brother Dominic, who was then a film producer, they worked brilliantly together as screenwriters. Much of the second half of the biography charts the intriguing deal-making intricacies of being pens-for-hire in Hollywood, as well as Didion’s immense striving to inform the American critical community and reading public herself that attention must be paid to Joan Didion.

Daugherty veers between irony and prissiness on the subject of Didion and Dunne’s endless quest for fame and fortune (both Dunne brothers were relentless name-droppers). He seems highly critical of their parenting skills, repeatedly letting us know about the times they spent away from their daughter (though, from what I read, they both strike me as busy professional writers who were still rather engaged parents). Daugherty also has an annoying habit of putting himself directly into Didion’s mindset, becoming creatively decorative in the process. Here’s his reimagining of Didion at the airport in Panama:

In a newspaper she saw a photograph of a hijacked 707 burning at night in a Middle Eastern desert . . . She thought of Henry Adams, the Dynamo, coal, Conrad’s tales of mining in the tropics, politics . . .

When I read that passage – and so many others of a similar descriptively presumptuous bent – all I could think was: Oh please! But if you can absorb this ongoing stylistic tic (and Daugherty’s frequent moral editorialising), The Last Love Song does present a fascinating sixty-year fresque of American culture (at both its high-end and its mercantile extremes). And the manifold tragedies that haunted Didion’s advanced years – the murder of her niece Dominique, the intense instability of her daughter, the heart attack that killed her husband while their daughter was in a coma (from a bout of pneumonia that turned into septicaemia) and Quintana’s eventual death – are handled with poignancy and narrative skill.

But if you truly want to read about all these desperate events filtered through Didion’s rigorous field of vision, steer yourself towards her two later masterworks: The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011).

Daugherty’s biography is most interesting when it comes to highlighting the complex dynamics inherent in a long and singular writing career (and a literary marriage). But despite its attempt at novelistic insight and narrative brio, it did leave me thinking: “Sorry, you’re no Joan Didion.”

The Last Love Song: a Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty is published by St Martin’s Press (752pp, $35)

Douglas Kennedy’s latest novel is “The Heat of Betrayal” (Hutchinson)

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie