The notebooks of icons
Joan Didion’s ‘South and West’ only scratches at the surface of America’s complex Southern states
Every writer has their tics, tortures phrases in draft and places markers for the big thought that has yet to come. Releasing unpolished notes from unpublished work is the height of bravery for an author, but Joan Didion has transcended author to become icon, and I suppose that this is the sort of thing icons can do.
In South and West (HarperCollins; $19.99), Didion sketches her month-long road trip in the summer of 1970 through foreign territory – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama – “where they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history”, before closing with the scraps of a piece on the Patty Hearst trial that she couldn’t bring herself to write, instead meditating on her California where “we do not believe that anything can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it”.
There can be little doubt why these notes have been released now. The South is Trump country, looked down on by blue America. It is “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic centre … The reason [Alabama governor George] Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon. Most Southerners are political realists: they understand and accept the realities of working politics in a way we never did in California,” Didion writes.
We want to see Didion as a prophet, after she pierced the culture of the ’60s and ’70s with her observations, her ennui, and that style, condemning the counterculture, examining suburban crime, tracking the currents of change and coming to terms with her own frailty. At her best, she is ethereal, floating around her subject, watching, noting, before finding the perfect moment when it aligns with the world and with her internal sense in an eclipse of prose, radiating truth and honesty.
Take the essay ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M-L)’, featured in her first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”
A uniquely inverse writer, she tells worldly stories through herself, with a myopia that is lenscraft rather than solipsism. She returned in 2005 with her finest work, The Year of Magical Thinking, a meditation on grief following the sudden death of her husband. “The unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself,” she writes. The equally compelling Blue Nights, about the death of their only child, sadly followed soon after.
Unfortunately, South and West reads more like her forgotten travelogues Salvador and Miami than Slouching or Magical Thinking. It is one for the true believers. Many of her instincts about the complexities of the South have merit, but the work is hamstrung by Didion’s habit to play tourist, to mistake observation for insight.
The South is now my home, and Didion’s South feels far removed from the gregarious, curious, hospitable place that I have come to know. It is undeniably troubled, but to paint it as an ignorant backwater – “the isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All of their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in handing down” – is condescending and clichéd. In the South, information is passed around because people participate in their community and actually talk to each other.
While Didion understands what many still don’t – that there are two distinct Americas, and they are ever widening – South and West is no great prophecy. The South is not the part of America that delivered Trump the election; it has been blood red since the Civil Rights era. The rust belt states flipped and got him over the line.
After all that Didion has given us for over half a century, it’s understandable why she chose to publish South and West, even if it lags behind her best. Didion fans are invested in Didion the icon, the tiny woman with the big eyes who writes about human experience like no one before her. Love isn’t forged in mediocrity, and admirers of Didion are probably both too hard and too gentle on her, as we are with all those we love most.