From the way people talk about Joan Didion, you’d think she had died and gone to writers’ heaven years ago.
She was the kind of writer whose saintly legend overshadowed her. The original ice queen of journalism, she spent decades hovering in corners and commenting dispassionately on the crises of the day: hiding behind sunglasses and reporting on acid-tripping toddlers in her famous essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” meeting a member of the Manson cult in The White Album, delving dry-eyed into her own grief after the deaths of her husband and daughter in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.
When her nephew released an obsequious documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, in 2017, it was seen as her due; Didion was physically weak from under-eating and Parkinson’s disease, but still strong enough in spirit to deliver the brutal one-liners that made her writing so bracing for mere mortals. Of the drugged-infant incident: “Let me tell you, it was pure gold. You live for moments like that.” She did, and readers loved her for it.
Didion held on until last week, when she died at age 87 in her Manhattan apartment.
She lived nearly two decades after the deaths of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 2003, and two years later her daughter, Quintana Roo, about whom she wrote the memoirs that established her late reputation as a fearless chronicler of grief.
By then, her early writing had long ago become a style: A shaper of what Tom Wolfe later dubbed the New Journalism, she placed herself in her stories, turning her cool eye on 1960s-era California and El Salvador, the decadence of the Reagans, the Vietnam War, and the CIA. It didn’t matter that her understanding of her subjects is often superficial, or that her liberal political angle became predictable, almost rote.
What mattered was her voice. One of the first personality journalists, she is always a diminutive but indomitable presence, writing with the cold clarity of someone whose credo, summarized in The White Album, is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This statement is not as comforting as it seems. Think of the fallout if Didion stopped writing: chaos. Think of what each storyteller, especially one as powerful as Didion, becomes: a self-made goddess. For this reason, acute critics such as Bruce Bawer point out that her true subject, her obsession, was herself.
The stories she tells in her fiction are of sadder but wiser drifters, women waiting in airports and descending into madness while cruising America’s superhighways. “What makes Iago evil?” asks the mentally ill protagonist of Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays. “Some people ask. I never ask.” Her characters, isolated victims, relate their stories from an infinite remove, defeated by life, perhaps, or wise to the world.
Her America, too, is dissipated, lost in its vices. “Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it,” Didion wrote in National Review in 1962. This is Didion’s America: a people wandering within their own corrupted Eden. Or maybe that’s just Didion.
But we go with what we have, Didion says. The essayist Elizabeth Hardwick describes the terse rhythm of Didion’s writing as “like hanging up the phone without notice.” That’s the way stories begin and end: suddenly, alone, with a feeling that something was left unsaid. And still, we pick up the phone and repeat them.
Yet it seems that Didion spent her last year listening to the dial tone instead. When she gave an ill-advised interview to TIME earlier this year, the journalist’s inane questions brought responses dripping with icy disdain. And Didion, or her estate, should have known better than to release the collection of retreads titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean.
What was Didion doing? It didn’t seem to matter; there was a sense that she was beyond these worldly concerns.
TIME: Do you have hope?
Didion: Hope for what? Not particularly, no.
TIME: Do you fear death?
Didion: No. Well, yes, of course.
What Didion understood was the difference between her stories and reality. For her, a writer is no more than an eyewitness, perhaps not even a reliable one. Even when the scene is her family’s loss, or her own, she can only relate the facts as she sees them. And the story she ends up writing is about herself.
Fittingly for a woman like Joan Didion, that’s a small, self-centered vision of what a writer can do, and yet it’s the reason why somehow, even now, she doesn’t feel further away.
Hannah Rowan is managing editor at The American Spectator.