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Joan Didion Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Sacramento, California, 1934. Education: California Junior High School and McClatchy Senior High School, both Sacramento; University of California, Berkeley, 1952-56, B.A. in English 1956. Career: Associate feature editor, Vogue, New York, 1956-63; moved to Los Angeles, 1964; columnist ("Points West"), with Dunne, Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, 1967-69, Life, New York, 1969-70, and "The Coast," Esquire, New York, 1976-77. Visiting Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1975. Lives in New York. Awards: Vogue Paris prize, 1956; Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1963; American Academy Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1979; Edward MacDowell medal, 1996. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow and Nesbit, 589 Madison Ave., New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Run River. New York, Obolensky, 1963; London, Cape, 1964; NewYork, Vintage, 1994.

Play It as It Lays. New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

A Book of Common Prayer. New York, Simon and Schuster, andLondon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Democracy. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1984.

The Last Thing He Wanted. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Welfare Island Ferry," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), June1965.

"When Did the Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was ItYesterday?," in Denver Quarterly, Winter 1967.

"California Blue," in Harper's (New York), October 1976.

Plays

Screenplays:

Panic in Needle Park, with John Gregory Dunne, 1971;Play It as It Lays, with John Gregory Dunne, 1972; A Star Is Born, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1976; True Confessions, with John Gregory Dunne, 1981; Hills Like White Elephants, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1992; Broken Trust, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1995; Up Close and Personal, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1995.

Other

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1968; London, Deutsch, 1969; New York, Modern Library, 2000.

Telling Stories. Berkeley, California, Bancroft Library, 1978.

The White Album. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.

Salvador. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1983.

Essays and Conversations, edited by Ellen G. Friedman. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1984.

Miami. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

After Henry. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992; as Sentimental Journeys, London, Harper Collins, 1993.

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Critical Studies:

Joan Didion by Mark Royden Winchell, Boston, Twayne, 1980, revised edition, 1989; Joan Didion by Katherine Usher Henderson, New York, Ungar, 1981; The Critical Response to Joan Didion, edited By Sharon Felton. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.

* * *

Though very much a California writer, Joan Didion is not provincial. She uses her immediate milieu to envision, simultaneously, the last stand of America's frontier values pushed insupportably to their limits and the manifestations of craziness and malaise which have initiated their finale. And while her novels invite a feminist critique, her understanding of sexual politics is beyond ideology. Each of her major characters struggles with a demonic nihilism which is corroding the individual, the family, and the social organism. Affluent and glib, her people endure a relatively privileged despair which may initially suggest a narrow purview. But a considerable ability to render social and physical environment broadly is saving.

In addition to dialogue which rivals Albee's, Didion's finest gifts are her talents for keeping clean of self-indulgence and for realizing a moral dimension in lives veering inevitably out of control. Certain recurring features of her work constitute leitmotifs germane to their interpretation. These include newspaper headlines, phrases from popular ballads, cinematic jargon, snakes, and the genteel Christian educations of her females. All pertain to the disintegration of an orderly past into a chaotic present, perhaps Didion's most irreducible theme.

Run River follows the eroding marriage of Everett and Lily (Knight) McClellan through 20 years. Concomitantly it chronicles the collapse of a way of life and the betrayal of the land which had given an epoch its apparent order. Ryder Channing enters the McClellans' lives when he courts Everett's sister. Though Martha never misconceives his selfishness and venality, she kills herself when Channing quits her. Lily's many unfeeling liaisons express her isolation from her husband and fatally draw her into Channing's increasingly nihilistic orbit. In his futile attachment to their Northern California ranch, Everett lives at a tangent to Lily's very genuine crises. When Everett kills Channing, it is not simply because Channing and his sleazy economic machinations are the wave of California's future, the perverse energy which turns redwoods to taco stands. Everett's suicide ends an era. But Lily's justifiable conclusion that Channing is guiltless, because he is a "papier-maché Mephistopholes," implies Didion's conviction that, however tawdry this interloper, he has only played upon a native tendency to ruin. Lily's survival implies her relatively greater, if tainted, adaptability and strength.

Play It as It Lays presents a culture beyond this metamorphosis. Consequently, it is set in Los Angeles where those tacky schemes of Ryder Channing are a fait accompli defining a whole state of being. Maria Wyeth's past is utterly disintegrated, her childhood home in Nevada having been detonated to oblivion by nuclear testing. Moribund, her marriage thins to extinction. With her brain-damaged daughter institutionalized and herself facing an abortion, Maria aimlessly drives the freeways to evade a ubiquitous dread.

Though Didion never politicizes abortion, she is morally obsessed with it. Lily and Maria endure the experience, but the treatment is fuller and more alarming here. A last straw, it pushes Maria closer to her counterpart and nemesis, BZ, another instance of modern demonic. Associated throughout with the serpent, this Hollywood Beelzebub tries with conscious nihilism to exploit Maria's drinking and sexual looseness. Maria's father, taking life as a crap game, had offered his case as a gambler and a cynic: "it goes as it lays, don't do it the hard way;" "overturning a rock [is] apt to reveal a rattlesnake." For Maria, this worldview is an affliction of passivity and anxiety, until she finally manages the small victory of rejecting BZ's invitation to join him in his successful suicide.

With A Book of Common Prayer, Didion suggests that the country is in the throes of metastasized California. So she invents an archetypal banana republic devoid of history. Boca Grande ("big mouth") yaps chamber of commerce propaganda and ingests North American residue. Charlotte Douglas, a San Francisco Pollyanna, weathers two difficult marriages: to a brilliant callous and cynical opportunist, and to a well-heeled radical lawyer. What she doesn't quite weather is the loss (à la Patty Hearst) of her daughter, Marin, "to history." Marin's situation is really very simple. She suffers from severe cases of banality and political jargon. But her new way of life tests to the limit Charlotte's too selective memory of the girl in Easter dresses. With the FBI agents who litter her house and the futility of her marriages at her back, she makes it to Boca Grande and a marginal life of good works for the suffering masses. She continues to put the best light on dark matters: stateside things like her brother's miserable existence on the old homestead in Hollister; Grande things like the Army's confiscation, for profit, of the people's cholera serum. She becomes oddly Sisyphean but holds out for the idea that we all remember what we need. Charlotte dies in the crossfire between Army and revolutionary forces, the guerilleros having decided that for once their insurrection is not going to be a State-sponsored melodrama. We come to like her and to wonder about the future of such folks as the Simbianese Liberation Army.

Democracy concerns the long and amorous liaison between Inez Victor, a politician's wife, and Jack Lovett. The latter embodies personal and social values lacking in and inconceivable to the husband, a Congressman aspiring to the presidency. Southern California recollected and contemporary Southeast Asia, particularly Kuala Lumpur, provide settings in which the fabulous quality of Boca Grande yields to realism. The novel clearly depicts American and international political life in the very fast lane, and its ruinous effect on familiar relationships. But Inez Victor's moral tenacity and practical resolve to use the past ethically distinguish her from Didion's earlier protagonists. Technically the novel is fresh, if not unique, for cinematic effects which break linear narrative; and for including a narrator named Joan Didion, who remarks the discrete functions of journalism and fiction, both provinces of great success for the real author.

With The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion's first work of fiction after 12 years of silence following Democracy, she returned to her familiar Central American/Caribbean locales and the political intrigue she had woven so successfully in previous books. The year is 1984, and the protagonist, Elena McMahon, seeks to carry out her father's dying wish: to bring in weapons, covertly supplied by the U.S. government, to the Contras fighting the Soviet-aligned Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The narrator is an unnamed figure, piecing together the story after the fact, much like the reporter who uncovered the secret biography of Citizen Kane. Hence Elena's motivation remains shadowy, yet the prose is as distinct and crisp as Didion's best.

—David M. Heaton

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