On Joan Didion, Home, And The Space Between Text And Reality

Things fall apart

by Angela Brussel

When people first started urging me to read Joan Didion—as a female writer from California, it would apparently be heretical for me not to—I developed the kind of irrational, fortified resolve a child does when being lectured by their parents.

All I could think was: What could Didion possibly do for me? Why must I read her? And having lived in California for the first 20 years of my life, what could Didion tell me about the state that I didn’t already know?

Then, I read Didion. No, wait, not read—consumed. Words became sustenance and real-life conversation was no longer needed because, well, I had Didion. And I soon found myself reciting the same exhortations I detested when I was younger to friends, strangers, colleagues, everyone. Really, no one was spared. You must read Joan Didion, I would say, mirroring the cadence of one of those tireless social climbers whose taste, they believe, is a palpable index of their currency. 

I do not give myself enough credit though. I wasn’t just passively reading Didion. I studied her work the way one would study Chaucer’s or Dante’s or Shakespeare’s. It was not a tokenistic love or one wielded like a member’s only badge. It was true and steadfast and sacred and very much a part of me. And if it wasn’t so large, so unruly in its eagerness to share, it would have been secret. I love Didion, I suppose, for the same reason I love anyone: I like the world better with her in it. 

This past October, Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne premiered his documentary The Center Will Not Hold, which chronicles Didion’s illustrious career, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. It was strange watching the documentary with hundreds of other people. The words I had read over and over and over again in the privacy of my own room were suddenly human-sized, sprawled flat against a screen, accompanied by old photographs and interspersed with new footage of the octogenarian Joan. There they were, the inner workings of her mind mediated by the mind of another. And as the multiplicity of perspective and interpretation piled on top of me and everyone else in the audience, I came to terms with what I had known all along but was reluctant to admit: Didion was not just mine. She belonged to others. 

And so, I cried. I did. But it was not the cry of a petulant child. It was the cry of a woman who finally felt what Didion had been telling her for years: the center does not hold. Things fall apart. But is this not a relief? 

When the screen switched back to black and a spotlight shone on Dunne in the right balcony propping Didion up by her frail arms out of her wheelchair, the wind was knocked out of me. I wasn’t expecting for her to be there, so small yet commanding all the power that, say, a Holy Order would. I thought the words had no beginning, like time, or grew from seed, like a tree. They never struck me as belonging to an actual person. Or they did, but it seemed like Didion the person and her body of work were two self-contained units. Why my reaction was so visceral, though, perplexes me. The closest approximation I have to an answer is this: I was mourning her plight, the era that created her, and our world as it now exists. To put it simply, I was mourning the end of things. Change. 

You should know that this is not a piece about California. It is not about bougainvillea or crepe-de-chine or L.A. County’s 42-mile loop, all of which I knew precisely nothing about until reading Didion. It is about the things that fall apart, and the centers that cannot hold, as professed by William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming.” It is about the words we use to try to harness the ephemerality of the visual order of things and the freedom that comes from the realization that nothing can be contained and nothing remains unchanging, including our memories, our stories. This life cannot be trapped in amber no matter how dedicated we are to the cause. At least, not in the way some of us hope. 

“All that is constant about the California of my childhood,” Didion writes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “is the rate at which it disappears.” And yes, in a way, the California of both mine and Joan’s respective childhoods has disappeared, as have the locales of everyone’s respective childhoods. But let us not forget the way words can suspend time without actually doing so. How they jerk the head backward and forward like whiplash. Can you remember what it felt like to first read about your hometown when you were separated from it? And if not, can you imagine it? The pride and shame that swell in turns. It feels like you belong to something important. It also feels like something has been taken from you.  

I do not know whose California I conjure on those days in New York when I see the rats scurry with unsettling willpower across the subway tracks as I imagine the state of my youth. Or when I brush shoulders with strangers who will not return my gaze, though I so eagerly want it matched. The string of defeats I encounter here is rarely perforated by triumphs, yet I remain. Freedom, mobility, privacy—these are the instincts that drove “America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules,” writes Didion in “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” So why am I living in Brooklyn? Why do I court change when it is the one thing I fear most? Ironically, those instincts that once drove people to the Pacific are precisely what brought me to New York in the first place.  

The old and new West loom in my mind like a fever dream—its crop, its climate, and its people—yet I remain in New York. For I know where California lives, and it always lives somewhere else. That place where “boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss,” writes Didion, “meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent”? Yes, that is somewhere else. That is fiction. And maybe what I love most about coming to terms with the aforementioned California is that it reminds me that things aren't required to work and that change is not only inevitable but necessary. Change, it seems, is the only act that allows you to rewrite yourself, both a liberating and terrifying prospect. 

Didion dredges California forth from the mire of memory and coats it with the illusory, the imagined, the mythical, and I imbibe it and believe it. Yes, this is my California. Even in her portrayal of its ugliness, its tipping over into the diabolical, the Santa Ana winds that drive us to madness and the apocalyptic earthquakes that shift us nearer to the edge, I beam with pride. Mine. I lap up her words, my eyes feverishly scanning the pages with a piousness I didn’t know belonged to me. It was not a California I had ever known, and yet it seized me with that familiarity and intense intimacy one feels in the face of kismet. When I read her, Brooklyn falls away, dissolving behind me.

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image,” writes Didion in The White Album. Did she know? That she claimed California hardest when she wrote it? That she has, for many, supplanted John Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler in doing so? She superimposed her California, constructed by stories and hearsay, facts and accounts, on top of the California so many call home. My cathedral of childhood is now filled with her sermons: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. 

“It is hard to see one of these places claimed by fiction,” writes Didion, referring to her assertion that Kilimanjaro belongs to Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi, to Faulkner, “without a sudden blurring, a slippage, a certain vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real.” What, then, is real? Which memories are ours? “Which is the true California?” asks Didion. “That is what we all wonder.” 

I recall C. Vann Woodward, whom Didion references in “California Notes” for The New York Review of Books: “Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, its general superiority.” Here is the human condition. Here is the story of man. And here is the story, the prose, that sustains me. The one that is so surgically precise that I feel like I am a patient etherized and pinned on a table. When I wake up, when I close the book, I almost forget where I came from. Who I am. 

Like Didion, I am a Westerner. And I, too, left Eden to migrate east, to that concrete and steel Babylon of the modern world, New York. “It is assumed,” writes Didion in “Notes From A Native Daughter,” “that those who absent themselves from its blessings have been banished, exiled by some perversity of heart. Did not the Donner-Reed party, after all, eat its own dead to reach Sacramento?” They did. And I forsook the bounty they doggedly sought. Retribution was mine, but isn’t it always with us, predators of nostalgia? I know that I am certainly not the only one who feels guilty about absenting themselves from the blessings of home. Every time my mother calls me, she asks when I am returning for good. And every time, I do not have an answer. I have to keep moving forward, like a shark, but I can’t tell her this. So guilt mutates into annoyance, and I feel so damn awful about it all that I just about want to call the whole thing off and give up entirely. 

I visited home recently, after reading Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and The White Album, and walked the streets feeling disoriented. So much of what I had remembered was bulldozed, the very dirt underneath the roads unearthed and piled into giant heaps somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Gill’s Ice Cream Parlor, shut. Jan’s Diner, a Chipotle. Jerry’s Famous Deli, replaced by a swish restaurant adorned with a clerestory and LED lights. Where was Didion’s Los Angeles? Where was mine? Somewhere else, of course. But my mother was so pleased about driving me around the way she used to that I couldn’t possibly tell her it no longer felt familiar. I couldn’t explain that what I was thinking was, What on earth does this place have to do with me? I reckon, when she drove, she was relying on muscle memory and her cognitive map of Los Angeles. The one that I used to inhabit as a young girl. My mom, I have learned, also fears change and would really rather freeze than reboot.  

"She sees your face in all the old familiar places," says dad. Even the ones that have been knocked clear off the grid. The streets stretch west toward the Pacific, north toward the valley, and east toward downtown all the same. Like grooves in a record. And she’s living in those damaged grooves that keep skipping, but she doesn’t know it because it sounds like it belongs. It feels like it belongs. The skips are lodged in her mind, no matter what clean, new version she hears. And I wonder what it feels like to live on loop. And I wonder if we’re all just living on loop. I am starting to believe that we are. Like how I can’t stop seeing that photo of the two of us circa 1993 in front of the Montessori on Hauser Boulevard. She’s beautiful and blonde, and she’s got me affixed to her hip like an appendage. Our old red Chrysler convertible with automatic seat belts and manual locks sits behind us, a testament to freedom and prosperity. She is so young and full of purpose and promise. 

Or like how I can’t stop thinking about that one time my best friend, J, and I went to Disneyland. Lazing on Tom Sawyer Island, high as hell, eating our massive Bay Cities sandwiches and listening to the shrieks coming from Splash Mountain. His shit-eating grin flashing in and out of view as we whipped through the darkest reaches of outer space on Space Mountain. Him walking down Main Street, the sky darkening, the air growing heavy with the smell of funnel cake.    

Is this our way of combating change? By resurrecting the past until we beat the present to a pulp? Now, Montessori is gone. In its place stands a grotesque complex of apartments and penthouses. The red convertible, sold. And mom, though still beautiful, is beginning to grow old and sad about the lives she could have had, the people she could have been. And J? Well, he never had a chance to grow old. And those lives he could have had and those people he could have been? I think about them from time to time, but I try not to.  

These people I remember, over and over and over again, inextricably belong to a place. To California. But I had never been so fond of the place as when I saw it through Didion’s lens. The forever summers drove me mad. The palm trees bothered me, dotting the sky everywhere I went, pestering me like flies circling above my head. My bedroom curtains were drawn at all times so that when I was ready to retreat, my eyes would only be met by the delicious darkness California is so terrible at offering. I worked the graveyard shift at the diner down the road so as to avoid that blistering sun, nearly incorrigible in its demands for its worshippers to spend their days at the beach doing god knows what.

How terribly horrid, I thought, to squander away all that time in the daylight where objects are just as they appear to be and the absurdity of man is hidden from sight, afraid of how it will be received by society at large. I prefer distance and darkness for that’s when the veneer of civilization is scrubbed clear off, when phantom bodies trail you, when delirium kicks into high gear and the bizarre finds its bearings. That’s what reading Didion feels like. And I couldn’t help falling in love with the California she made in her image because it seemed to be so perfectly aligned with the California I sought when I lived there. The California that is most complete when it is untouched, remote. Like that photograph of me and mom. Like J still being alive. Like words. Like anywhere but here and now. 

In Plato’s The Phaedrus, he attacks the written word, calling it a “crutch of memory.” Rather than aid memory, he believes it disables our dormant ability to know something within ourselves, and it prevents us from acquiring detailed knowledge of the soul. But Didion’s words seem just as, if not more, honest to me than any of those photographs of her, marked by quiet stoicism and sadness. It is apparent, though, in Didion’s portrayal of the West through the written word, that she is attempting to transcend words, so miserably insufficient, and tap into the world of images quite aptly defined by Virginia Woolf as real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life, beholding images as they are when we are not there and life as it is when we have no part in it. Even Didion, whose own writing is in many ways so methodical and controlled, is not concerned with “an accurate factual record.” Where there is nonfiction in Didion’s oeuvre, there is invariably an “embroidery worked into the day’s pattern to lend verisimilitude,” she confesses in “On Keeping a Notebook.” Those stories we tell ourselves in order to live. 

I imagine Didion, that “cool customer” in the eye of a tornado, with images from her past, adrift and unmoored, whipping around her. She is haunted by images, seized by splitting migraines, and assaulted by bad nerves. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Maybe, salvation and sanity, in Didion’s case, can be found in the small details and the intense concentration required to render them in her image. It is in Didion’s expert arrangement of images that she achieves a poignancy that the strictest of realists cannot always conjure. It is also what compels me to want to go home, which we all know is not entirely possible. At least, not the home where mom’s got me on her hip and that Chrysler’s in our driveway and J is still breathing, walking, loving. 

Yet still, however contained and controlled the recollection, here in Didion’s oeuvre, and in our memories, is the proof that things fall apart like those versions of ourselves we cling so steadfastly to and those stories we tell ourselves in order to live. And the images that the mind recalls, over and over again, remodeling themselves under the weight of context and desire. I now find myself longing for California in a way that is completely foreign to me. I feel the pull of my body drifting away from the cold and into the light, where I think I belong. Yet here I am in Brooklyn, crushed under my duvet, reaching my limbs out like a climbing plant toward that sun I hated, clinging to my surroundings and heaving myself upward toward its rays. 

No. This is not a piece about California. For each time I remember it, the memory grows less precise, almost to the point of being totally false. The brain network alters. And isn’t it liberating? To not be bogged down by the actual? To not be corseted by images? Even if I was presented with a panoramic photograph of my childhood, I would still imagine what exists beyond the frame. And I could imagine anything, even within its confines. Because when I write that 34-year-old mom has just met 34-year-old dad at that wild New Year’s Eve party and that dad is insisting she read Bonfire of the Vanities and mom doesn’t give a damn about Bonfire of the Vanities and that they don’t know it yet but they’re going to spend the rest of their lives loving the hell out of one another, it’s actually happening and it’s inside of me. And when I write that my dear friend J is walking down Larchmont with a copy of Tender is the Night in his rucksack and he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him, he is and he is still alive and he never rode that bike that day. And when I write that I am living in Brooklyn and longing for California and everything that comes with it, I suddenly, remarkably, am doing just that. And it's inside of me, in my center; it will hold for at least a little while, I hope.