Martin Amis described Joan Didion as the “poet of California emptiness.”
Didion is a sixth-generation Californian, tracing her roots back to surviving members of the Donner Party. Raised in the Sacramento Valley and educated at Berkeley, she is a native daughter and California and its characters figure heavily in her writing.
Her first novel, Run River (1963), tells the story of a murder and a bad marriage set against the backdrop of the sleepy Sacramento Delta. Many of the pieces of the her first collection of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), are first-hand reportage of the flower children in San Francisco. With her second novel, Play It As It Lays (1970), Didion set her sights on Hollywood, both the place and the business, creating the most devastating portrait of the movie business since Nathanael West.
As the descendent of pioneers, the myth of manifest destiny looms large in her work. Throughout her writing, her characters and subjects are haunted by failed ambitions, lost hope, and misplaced dreams.
In an interview with Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, Didion says,
“A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions – leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways – those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.”
Didion captured the stories of her day with clarity, precision, and a keen ear. Soon, the innocence of the age was about to end for her and everyone else.
A Senseless Killing Neighborhood
Joan Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, left New York City in 1966. They rented a rambling old Hollywood estate on Franklin Avenue. It was a section of town that was quite tony in its day but was now lined with decaying mansions, therapy cults, and the crash pads of many, many rock musicians.
A friend of Didion’s told her the place seemed to be “a senseless killing neighborhood.”
Just blocks away, the 60s youth movement kicked off during the “Riots of Sunset Strip.” Nearby Laurel Canyon remained rock ’n roll’s spiritual home. Although the scene had largely moved on by Didion’s arrival, rock music in those days still had enough street cred to make things edgy.
“This house on Franklin Avenue was a rental and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled, and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high ceilinged and, during the five years I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I live in the house indefinitely.”
– Joan Didion
In the years that Didion lived on Franklin Avenue, these things happened.
Silent film star Ramon Novarro was murdered in his Laurel Canyon home by two brothers in a hustle gone bad.
The Doors replaced the The Byrds as LA’s hometown band and recorded their third album at a studio on Sunset Boulevard.
Janis Joplin, a party guest of Didion’s, died of a drug overdose at the Landmark Hotel just blocks from the Franklin house.
And, the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and four others at the actress’ home on Cielo Drive. Manson himself joined his family the following night as they broke into the Los Feliz home of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca and butchered the couple in their kitchen.
By all accounts, it was the Manson murders that marked the end of the Summer of Love. But, as Didion would later observe, “no one was surprised.”
Didion covered all these events in her brilliant essay, “The White Album.” That moment in America was complex and confusing for Didion, and everyone else. She dates the essay 1968 – 1978, taking a full decade to reflect upon the all that had happened during that brief time in Los Angeles.
With shocking candor, Didion shares her psychiatric evaluation with her readers in The White Album. The report describes a patient who appears so alienated as to be out of touch with reality.
Of course this was a time of great social upheaval and civic unrest in America. And it was here in Los Angeles that the dissonance reverberated the strongest.
In typical British style, Martin Amis’ comment can be read as both deft compliment and sly insult, as if California had its own particular brand of emptiness. What is clear is that the experience of emptiness has rarely been expressed as convincingly as it is in Didion’s work. She portrays a society splitting at the seams from internal contradictions and social fragmentation.
In that reality, a “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world” may actually be quite rational.
The highly anticipated documentary on Joan Didion’s life and work, The Center Cannot Hold, has now been released.
It’s available on Netflix.