May 24, 2010

Notes on the writing of Joan Didion


"A waterfall is a self-correction maladjustment of stream to structure, and so, for all I know, is technique."

-- Joan Didion
1. Sentence fragments are easy enough, common enough, but Didion's are better and she uses comma splices too, and to great effect. She opens Democracy with a complete sentence that then echos in fragments that cascade off of the original statement, the altered iterations expanding outwards.

"The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.
Something to behold.
Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.
He said to her.
Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.
Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
He said: The sky was this pink ... "
Then, in crescendo, she lets this sentence that both is and isn't in the voice of Jack Lovett take off and just go. It's a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a cliche and unravels from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts a comma and a complete sentence, as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing. He comma splices communicate this need to re-state or re-phrase, which both captures the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel's expression of an ennui that isn't boredom but an inability to exactly say.

"The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands."
What strikes me as amazing about Didion's grammar, here, is how it's not a new a thing, but a very old and common thing brilliantly done.

2. I can't quite describe Didion's fictional female characters in Democracy and Play It As It Lays. They seem to float -- not that they're spacey or ditzy, but they're detached. They're, I want to say, not ethereal, but airy.

There are parts of both characters and some descriptions that seem to be or border on being misogynistic, but even in those places I couldn't imagine these descriptions coming from a man.

3. Both Didion and Anne Proulx are intensely minimalistic. This might, in part, be a reaction against the stereotype of florid women writers, of women as overwriters. Or maybe that's only why I like them. For men, this minimalism would normally mean a macho pose -- writer as tough guy -- but Didion and Proulx do it differently, with a sort of deftness I find endlessly fascinating. It's interesting how different they are, though, despite their similarities. I imagine if the two women went to a party, they'd act much the same. They are both small women known for wanting to be left alone. They're both conservative, but in odd ways. Both independent and isolated, though perhaps there's a class difference in how. It's hard to imagine them describing the same party, though. If they did it'd be completely different. They both describe land a lot, but completely differently. Proulx is concrete where Didion drifts off or away. Where Proulx likes hands and skin, horses and trucks, Didion returns to descriptions of weather, wind, water and sky:
"Kona means leeward, and this particular wind comes off the leeward side of the island, muddying the reef, littering the beaches with orange peels and prophylactics and bits of Styrofoam cups, knocking blossoms from the plumeria trees and dry fonds from the palms. The sea goes milky. Termites swarm on the wooden roofs. The temperature has changed only slightly, but only tourists swim. At the edge of the known world there is only water, water as a definite presence, water as the end to which even the island will eventually come, and a certain restlessness prevails."