“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion

February 20th, 2021  |  Published in January/February 2021

I have long believed that Joan Didion has the greatest mind of any writer, thinker, essayist, reporter, anywhere in the world during her long writing career (both fiction and nonfiction). She is now 86 and has retired from writing, so that the newest collection of her writings, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean”, proves yet again the genius of her thinking (and unparalleled writing style). Didion, a fifth generation Californian, has been writing since the mid to late l960s; her fiction and nonfiction have a tendency to play off each other, one becoming the other, or one reinterpreting the other, blurring those lines in ways uniquely Didion.  In an interview some years back, she confessed to an early interest in geology, which makes perfect sense; her ability to see under the surface of perceived reality is almost like a seer’s, and one of her greatest contributions to writing is her ability to see and unravel multiple perspectives on any subject about which she writes, perceiving an oblique and often multiply subjective sense of what’s under those surfaces of politics, psychology, popular culture, and the like.  The essays in this current slim volume confirm yet again that we are in the presence of a literary genius.

It has long fascinated me that the definitive writer of the generation older than the boomers, sometimes known as The Korean war generation–often described as conforming, quiet, noncomplaining, should find its greatest writer to be a pre-feminist woman, who’s interested in fashion as well as politics, a writer who may well have figured out who killed JFK, who went to that murky area of Central America during the Iran-contra era and pretty much figured out what the hell was going on there (“Salvador”).  Her mind seems to work both on an intuitive and a rational plane, combining the best of both. Didion’s is the defining voice of the essay; if you’ve never read her, try this new book as a way into her great oeuvre.

I was spellbound by her analysis and defense of Martha Stewart, in “everywoman.com” in this collection; I admit to finding Stewart cold and somewhat distasteful; she lives very near family of mine in Fairfield County, Connecticut, who’ve long told me that merchants in that area cringe when she enters a shop, as she’s demanding and unpleasant and never satisfied, so I’m told.   When she came to Cincinnati years back for a public appearance, and stayed at an expensive hotel downtown, the concierge there was told to remove a man in a wheelchair from the lobby, as Stewart found this image “distasteful” (this is a first person anecdote); the concierge refused to allow Stewart to stay at this hotel and booked her in another. But upon reading Didion’s essay on Stewart, I came to more fully understand this complex woman who came from virtually nothing, who works incredible hours, who basically became a billionaire by figuring out how to make (if you will) doilies with ribbons and other “homemaking” skills from the fifties or even earlier; she actually does make everything her businesses sell.  Stewart has tapped into a market of mainly American women who have little public voice, women in trailers and bungalows, women who must work for their own survival and that of their families.  Many women I know who were working in careers, not jobs, were fascinated by Stewart, who told them to (if you will) take their magazines and catalogues and put them into a pretty basket with a ribbon atop that basket: these self-evident things were not so for full-time career women, and Stewart captured (and marketed) the idea that the home front can still be beautiful and full of personal touches for those with little time or even interest in using scissors and paste and gift wrapping paper.  And her audience sees her wild success, and they relate to and root for her, as her empires grow and grow; her very persona is her success, as Didion points out in the single most brilliant essay about Stewart I’ve ever read. And I might add that it’s typical of Didion to pick a subject like Stewart and see her through lenses that the rest of us just don’t have.

The essay “On Being Unchosen By the College of One’s Choice” manifests Didion’s often undernoticed sense of humor; like many of her generation of Californians, she applied to Stanford, then more of a regional California school, and actually quotes from the school’s rejection letter to her, making a virtually unknown admissions officer at Stanford forever famous (she notes that when she tells her father about said rejection, “he shrugged and handed me a drink”). These odd, though wildly important choices about college admission seemed beyond important at that age, and it’s kind of fun to laugh with her these years later (if I were in Stanford’s admissions office now, I’d not be laughing, as they managed to reject the most brilliant writer in the world of her generation, a kind of fun “oops” moment for anyone who’s ever received such a letter).  But her larger point is how little where we went to college may ultimately matter, and her essay urges students and parents to knock off the pressure.

For longtime Didion fans, “Why I Write” is a commandingly brilliant and revealing essay about how her mind works when she decides to write. Fascinating to me, she mentions how she evolved one female character by writing one, then two, and then three sentences about her; it’s am image of a well-dressed woman in an (unknown) airport, ordering tea in an airport lounge.  I’ve carried this particular Didion image in my head for decades; she appears in both Didion’s fiction and nonfiction and somehow is the metawoman in Didion’s worlds, possibly a stand-in for Didion herself.  Didion’s women sometimes seem to appear vague, oblique, disconnected, and perhaps they sometimes are; they’re often surrounded by lots of wealth of undetermined origin, corruption surrounds their lives (“Democracy”, one of her best novels), yet they are much stronger than the reader may think, and their very vagueness an acquired survival skill.  The title of this book of essays, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is to be read in multiple ways, as Didion always means lots of things/ideas/perceptions in anything/everything she writes.  Let me add here that her multiple award winning book “The Year of Magical Thinking” is the finest book about grief and mourning and loss I believe ever written by anyone, anywhere. How she evolved her increasingly minimalist style of writing over the years is beyond me and beyond my own abilities, but suffice it to say that rarely has any writer said so much in so few words, a style that no one has ever successfully imitated.

Perhaps it’s an odd comparison, but Didion’s words, which often circle around an idea, reminds me of the way another iconic woman of her generation, Barbra Streisand, sings: Streisand often sings around a note until she hits it, a deliberate, slightly mannered way of singing that compares only to how Didion uses words to similar effect.  That so much of American culture’s finest interpreters of culture should be these two women should not go unnoted as their gender, I think, is part of their genius and of their obvious perfectionism.

Let me end my meditations about Didion with an anecdote from her brilliant “Political Fictions” (she is very persuasive in assuming that politics has become fiction). Didion’s genius includes her being at a place before the actual (often staged) event occurs. She was in Israel when George Bush Senior was campaigning for President; Didion notes that almost all presidential candidates make a stop in Israel.  Bush insisted on being photographed sitting on a camel. There are no camels in Israel. So the Israelis in charge of staging this event/photo op contacted their equivalents, I suppose, in Jordan, and lo! the Israelis sent a cargo plane to Jordan to pick up a couple of camels; Bush got his photo op on a camel in Israel, after which said camels were returned to Jordan. It’s such a Joan Didion moment, and one of my all time favorites of hers.

My only regret about “Tell Me What I Mean” is my assumption that it’s Didion’s last book; she is no longer writing (oh! what she might’ve done with The Trump family!) , and this book is therefore, presumably, the last writings we’ll read of Didion’s, but I urge everyone to read this book as a way into the greatest mind in America, hands down.

–Daniel Brown

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