In his introduction to Joan Didion’s newest book of essays essayist Hilton Als writes that part of the “remarkable character of Didion’s work” is that she refuses to pretend she doesn’t exist. The title of the collection itself sets a precedent for what the essays will do – when Didion says, “Let me tell you what I mean”, she isn’t kidding.
In her landmark collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote, “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am 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.”
In Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion doesn’t sell herself out – her razor-sharp wit and keen eye for anything objectionable to her clearly defined, constantly revised sensibilities are as potent as ever. Didion doesn’t care about being popular at the cost of compromising on her truth.
For example, in an essay about sitting in on a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, she makes her discomfort known in her writing, her instinct that there was something “not quite right, something troubling” about the sappy language, the cloistering rhetoric of getting “serenity”, which, Didion announces, is a word she associates with death.
Careful and incisive
This collection also makes visible Didion’s deep and fraught relationship with seeing. In a profile of Nancy Reagan, Didion spends the first few pages ruminating over the way in which Reagan is watched by the people around her, who are present for the sole purpose of watching her. “...the television newsman and the two cameramen could watch Nancy Reagan being watched by me, or I could watch Nancy Reagan being watched by the three of them, or one of the cameramen could step back and do a cinema verite study of the rest of us watching and being watched by one another”, writes Didion.
What’s fascinating here is not only Didion’s careful and incisive work in dissecting the metaphysics of watching and being watched, but the structure of the profile itself, the way in which Didion begins by stepping back and painting a picture of the space and the way in which Reagan occupies it while being watched. Didion’s framing takes into careful account the dynamics of seeing and being seen.
Like most writers, Didion seems taken by the ways in which memory and space interact with each other, and how they warp one another. In her essay “A Trip to Xanadu”, she considers the possibility that looking at things too closely ruins them. She writes about San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s version of a castle – Didion describes it as a castle that a child would build if a child had forty million dollars to spend on a castle.
She reflects on her own associations with the space, one she only saw while being driven down Highway 1, which gave it a mystical, fantastical feel as it floated above the fog in golden light. She recounts seeing it from up close for the first time, with a niece from Connecticut, concluding that it was perhaps better seen from afar.
Living with language
Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a portrait of a deep and messy history with language, one with twists and turns. it is a history embodied by one of the most formidable essayists of the modern Western canon, and what makes this a book worth reading is the way in which Didion lays out her convoluted dealings with conventions of language and writing, with the particularities of genre and the surprising ways in which she learnt how to write.
In the first essay of the collection, “Alice and the Underground Press”, Didion lays out her contentions which the state of news reporting, saying that it is a “deadening and peculiar” thing, our “inability to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to “get through”. She argues against a kind of objectivity that gets in the way of engaging, interesting writing and advocates instead for underground papers. “I have never read anything I needed to know in an underground paper,” admits Didion – and this is the strength of these papers, that they have their readers interests at the forefront.
In an essay titled “Why I Write”, title obviously borrowed from George Orwell, she thinks about the I in writing. She admits that for years she travelled through “the world of ideas” on a “shaky passport”, before discovering that she wasn’t and what she was – a writer. In “Telling Stories”, Didion writes about her journey with fiction. She recounts the anguish of being a nineteen year-old in a writers’ workshop full of older, well-lived writers with things to write about, of getting a B in the class and not writing fiction for several years after. She clarifies – that she didn’t write stories for ten years did not mean she didn’t write at all.
Didion talks about how she learnt the nuances of language in an unexpected way, while writing copy for Vogue magazine. She writes “….it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as toys, tools and weapons to be deployed strategically on the page.”
And deploy them she does. What Didion does in Let Me Tell You What I Mean is what she’s been doing her entire career – coolly, effortlessly and masterfully asserting a point of view. What this collection does that is different from other collections of her essays is provide a compendium of how she became the writer she is. Didion reflects on formative experiences in her journey as a writer in order to illustrate how she did one of the hardest things a writer must do – develop a perspective.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion, 4th Estate.