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Book review: South and West by Joan Didion

Joan Didion. Photo/Getty Images

Joan Didion’s musings on her geographical fixations create a glittering but fragmented offering.

These days, mentioning Joan Didion will probably result in averted eyes and sad mutterings about “grief porn” – but it pays to remember we’re still talking about one of America’s greatest writers.

A rare female voice in the boys’ club of New Journalism, she incisively teased out the contradictory cultural values of late-20th-century USA in novels and glossy essays. Now 82, reputation beyond question, she has no need to prove anything to anyone.

South and West: From a Notebook brings together her previously unpublished, unfinished 1970s notebook musings on two of her geographical obsessions: California (Didion is a Sacramento girl and the writer who did the most to give LA a soul) and below the Mason-Dixon line whence came many of California’s settlers.

The short California portion came about from Didion’s attempt to cover the Patty Hearst trial, which never eventuated as anything.

The south is much more interesting. We meet the White Guy who owns the Black radio station. A woman improbably drops dead in her car right in front of the author. A boy by a motel pool dries himself with a Confederate flag towel. Snippets of no-good boyfriend “N” flit through. Another swimming pool smells like fish.

But why now? No reason is given in the florid, Didion-esque foreword by novelist pup Nathaniel Rich (I have no idea what connects him to her, and neither, I suspect, does he). Didion doesn’t add much context either – two brief notes 10 years apart, 2006 and 2016. Is it just to say, “I’m still here”?

Fragments, glittering fragments, intoxicating and seductive even as they are overwritten. Sex, death, melancholy and neurosis. The ridiculously large point size of the text helps stretch it to book length. Louisiana and Mississippi are sultry fatalism and swampy decay peppered with eccentrics. The California section might as well not even be there.

“Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas.” Brilliant! Didion’s stylistic box of tricks becomes less mesmerising when broken into bites, but occasional bits like that bite back, like a snake hidden among the carefully cultivated paradoxes, the distant asides and padding disguised as scaffolding.

In the end, we’re here for that lush prosody, the theatrical shock counterpoints, the autobiographical hints, the personas (mostly Didion’s own). To demand anything else would be churlish. It’s glorious, with Joan the Sphynx pacing behind the bars like Rilke’s panther, but more for completists.

South and West: From A Notebook, by Joan Didion (HarperCollins, $23)

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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