A LIFE OF MAGICAL WRITING

Of all the attributes and qualities accorded writers, the one easily abused and misunderstood most is voice.

Given the growing number of books published each year, publishers and their publicists are exhausting such hortatory terms for authors as inventive, intriguing, and authoritative (by which they mean to imply devious, plot-driven, and whistle-blowing).

Voice is, among other things, a way of recognizing a friend at the other end of the room during a party. It is as much a quality of an individual as that person’s DNA. Voice identifies and, under the proper circumstances, it betrays.

A number of contemporary writers have readily identifiable voices. When the time comes in the classroom to investigate the quality and ramifications of voice, I often pass out unidentified segments of the fiction or nonfiction of noted writers, then ask the students to identify them. Easily the most frequently identified is Ernest Miller Hemingway. Closing in on second place is Henry David Thoreau. Elmore Leonard fares well in such blindfold tests; so does another writer still among us, producing essays, reviews, novels, and long, probing studies of what I like to think of as the suburbs of the human condition.

If ever a writer could be said to have a voice, at once clear and penetrating while at the same time giving an overwhelming sense of struggle for precision, it is she who describes herself as “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

Ladies and Gentlemen – Joan Didion.

Earlier this month, Everyman’s Library published “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” an omnibus edition of seven of Didion’s nonfiction books appearing between 1968 and 2003. For her fiction, you’ll have to resort to trade paper editions and/or such Internet venues as Abebooks, Alibris, and Amazon. For the winner of the 2006 National Book Award, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (Knopf), you’ll have to consult Mary at Tecolote Books.

John Leonard, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review, as well as a fellow contributor with Didion at The National Review, supplied the introduction for “We Tell Ourselves Stories.” In it, he says, “I’ve been trying forever to figure out why [Didion’s] sentences are better than mine or yours…something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves. Even the space on the page around these sentences is more interesting than it ought to be, as if to square a sandbox for a Sphinx.”

Voice, Mr. Leonard. Voice. It is the element she brings to all her work, the fabled secret ingredient successful cooks fail to mention when passing along their recipes to admiring fans. It is the attitude and intensity she invests in her written tour guides of our common psyches and behavior patterns. It is her ongoing struggle to define herself as she writes to define the worlds of cause and effect than wax and wane with the frivolity of summer marine layers.

“This is a story about love and death in the golden land,” she writes in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” She continues, “and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.”

In this remarkable landscape of a history, she takes us through geographic places, emotional places, and iconic ones, into the promises and betrayals of aspirations, institutions, and conventions. Constantly fascinated by the very details that make the abstract or complex plausible, she emerges as though Publius Vergilius Maro, the noted poet we think of as Virgil, having led Dante through the realms of The Inferno, now pausing to scrape chewing gum from the soles of his sandals. Didion has seen, suffered over, and digested, hoping to get facts and history as alive and textured as possible. Although she may appear to be offering herself as a guide, just as Virgil did for Dante, we must not mistake her motives as being entirely selfless – she is doing this as much for herself and her need to write events and impressions down as from her need to show us the way.

“We Tell Ourselves Stories…” gives us a grab bag of material on politics, personal issues, and our individual and collective responses to the various zeitgeists that have settled on us like clouds of locusts, resting for a spell before moving on.

The photo on back of the dust jacket for “The Year of Magical Thinking” shows a 30-year-old photo of Didion, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo, in a moment of family comfort on the deck of their Malibu home. Husband and daughter are both gone now, each suddenly dead, leaving Didion alone to face the exploration of one of the most wrenching of all landscapes – grief.

Dedicated to John and Quintana, “The Year of Magical Thinking” begins near Christmas, 2003, when Didion and Dunne saw their daughter progress from flu to pneumonia, then into complete septic shock. Nowhere to go from there except an induced coma, and life support. After visiting Quintana at her hospital, the parents opted for dinner at home rather than eating out. While preparing dinner, Didion watched, first in irritation at what she considered tasteless humor, then in stunned disbelief as John Gregory Dunne experienced and died from a massive coronary. “Life changes fast,” Didion writes. “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

Between these observations and her approach of the end of the account of the year that was absorbed into the landscape of grief, Didion has produced a remarkable work that tempts me to say it is her finest yet, as complex and complete a primer of acute loss as has ever been written. It is that; but in her case, to say it is her finest yet is to subtly undercut the architecture and purpose of the materials in “We Tell Ourselves Stories…”

“I have trouble thinking of myself as a widow,” she writes. She also has trouble “thinking of myself as a wife. Given the value I placed on the rituals of domestic life, the concept of ‘wife’ should not have seemed difficult, but it did….In fact, I had no idea how to be a wife.”

These are not so much confessions as they are ground rules, information to be pondered, sorted, classified. Thus in loss as well as achievement and curiosity, Didion is measuring herself and the world about her, making sense of herself in the various landscapes she has inhabited.

A Californian by birth and raising, Didion, very much in the way John Steinbeck did before her, gave up on the West, moved East, then wrote of the loss of place and the struggle for accommodation.

With a vivid sense of clarity, Didion’s life work, still active, demonstrates the impossibility of defining endings; there are no endings – only negotiated settlements. In these settlement hearings, Joan Didion is as shrewd a negotiator as we could want.