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Joan Didion: my refuge from lousy writing

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(Read caption) Maria Wyeth, the infamously detached protagonist of Didion’s novel "Play It As It Lays," says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing."

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Working in the book business definitely has its pluses: free books in excessive quantity, which I get paid to read; colleagues who like to talk about comma splices; and the inherited authority (decidedly undeserved) to tell other people what they should be reading. It also has its minuses and perhaps the biggest one is that with quantity and quality do not always keep pace. In other words, I read a lot of bad books. Actually, I read a relatively small number of bad books but I read a whole lot of mediocre ones. There comes a point – after I’ve read one too many lousy galleys – that I give up and retreat back to the safety of the backlist. And I am currently hiding out between the coverboards of Joan Didion’s formidable oeuvre.

What makes books lousy, besides the authors who write them, is (1) an excess of emotion on the page – the emotion of the author, not that of the characters (2) clumsy sentences (which lay the foundation for clumsy paragraphs and clumsy chapters…) and (3) too many adjective and adverbs and not enough concrete details. By contrast, Didion’s books are precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice (whether it be her own in her essays and non-fiction or that of her characters in her novels) set against the utter disarray – “disorder was its own point” – of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.

Polarities are Didion’s specialty – vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, violence and helplessness, despair and hope, personal and cultura – and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure. You feel like there is a spring too tightly wound buried somewhere that you cannot see and that at any moment is going to tear the pages – the world – apart. The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria Wyeth, the infamously detached protagonist of Didion’s novel "Play It As It Lays" who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.”

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