Slouching Toward Joan Didion

January 25, 2012, 4:52 pm

I know that, as a feminist, I am not supposed to like Caitlin Flanagan because she has made gender essentialism fashionable again.  But honestly?  I don’t think this makes her a bad person.  She is an intellectual who has a keen eye for the role the gender binary plays in our culture, and then — her flaw is that sometimes she stops there when she should push a little harder.    When she does go for the take down, she is ruthless in ways I appreciate and admire.

I first encountered Flanagan (before I knew I wasn’t supposed to like her) when she published “The Price of Paradise” in The New Yorker (January 3 2005).  This is a priceless piece about the horrors of resort-style family vacations designed for couples who have little children. It’s an article that forces the critical feminist reader to acknowledge that gender essentialism, when it isn’t providing excuses for sexism, can be a useful device.  It speaks to the real experiences of real people who actually do live in essentialist worlds.  Because of this, as long as your immediate response isn’t, “Hey, that’s not my experience!” essentialist accounts can be treated a bit like ethnography.  For example, “The Price of Paradise” helped me, an observer to dreary social phenomena like hetero- or homonormative child rearing, understand a little better how it is that people spend years, or even decades, doing things they don’t want to do in the name of family.

A less perfect, but still useful, article is Flanagan’s reflection on Joan Didion in the recent issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2012). My critique of the piece is its hook:  all women “get” Joan Didion in a deeply felt way; her critics are men, who may see her flaws as a writer more clearly because they aren’t women and they don’t “get” her.

What I am about to say is the “this isn’t my experience!” moment that Flanagan can inspire.  To wit:

Flanagan and I must be around the same age. Her take on the audience for Didion’s genre of nonfiction writing  – otherwise known as the New Journalism — is that women love Didion because she is a domestic writer, and men love Hunter Thompson because he is an outdoor writer who writes about guy stuff. “Didion’s genius,” Flanagan argues, “is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has.”  Didion also, Flanagan points out, fills her prose with details that evoke comfortable domesticity — clothing, drapes, household touches.  These details dovetail with the affective way that women experience “their” world (i.e., through consumption and feelings, not action.)

Don’t get me wrong:  I think this is kind of a fascinating insight, but she loses me with her certainty that this makes Didion a “female” writer (I would argue, for example, that Henry James demonstrates the kinds of insights into gender and domesticity that Flanagan describes above.)  I understand it that I am not exactly a “woman” in the way Flanagan might mean, but I doubt that I am the only person without a peni$ who was intrigued and inspired by both Didion and Thompson as a young person, and who continues to re-read both to this day.  In fact, last summer, in anticipation of the publication of Didion’s memoir Blue Nights (2011), about the death of her daughter Quintana Roo and her fears about growing old alone, I went on a Didion binge.  One novel that I highly recommend is Democracy (1984), which I found remarkable for many reasons, but (spoiler alert!) one of them was the chilling coincidence that the heroine’s lover dies abruptly of a heart attack, leaving her alone, as Didion’s real life husband John Gregory Dunne would twenty years later.  Furthermore, the heroine’s daughter is a drug addict.

Which brings me back to what I like about Flanagan. She is the only writer I know of who has asserted, in print, what Didion herself has never told us in any of her deeply felt writing about Quintana:  that she was bipolar and had a long-term substance abuse problem.  I had heard this from reliable people who knew the family in L.A. and in New York.  One of these people told me that Quintana’s final illness was not caused by flying to high altitude in an airplane (as Didion asserts), but by something intoxicating she ingested on the plane.  Because of Didion’s apparent fuzziness as to the nature of Quintana’s illness in all of her public statements about it, and her vague descriptions of what she will only call her daughter’s “anxious nature,”  I found myself unable to write about either Blue Nights or The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) after I read them. Didion wrote in crystalline detail about Quintana’s health crisis, but as if it was a rare and mysterious condition no one could diagnose. I also found it odd that Didion’s public reaction to the death of Dunne, who had a heart attack with a drink in his hand (if I recall correctly), made the event seem as if that too was an entirely unexpected end for a lifetime drinker and smoker.

As Flanagan  points out, both Didion and Dunne were substance abusers and relentless careerists. Not surprisingly, Quintana was a profoundly neglected child in addition to being affected by a mental disability:

Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was “precisely what I want to be doing,” Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.

Flanagan loses her nerve at the end, and retreats into her “all women love Joan Didion theme,” which is a shame.  It wrecks an article that might have made a more interesting point about an author who is simultaneously compelling and profoundly untrustworthy. Like, what did Didion actually mean years ago when she said that a writer “is always selling somebody out,” perhaps one of her most quoted phrases?  Did she mean all writers, or that she herself was always in the process of “selling somebody” (Qunintana?) “out”?  But if you too have read Didion’s last two books and found them a little off, this article well worth a read.  It also underlines another truth:  Didion may be old, but she hasn’t lost her influence in the literary world if every other reviewer has given her a pass on the facts she has chosen to bury in these highly publicized accounts, and the implications those facts have for interpreting her work.

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