Musings: Reading Joan Didion for the 1st Time

You know how once you’ve heard of something and/or someone and then all of a sudden they’re somehow everywhere? That’s been happening to me with Joan Didion.

So it’s no secret that I love the band Best Coast. I’ve seen them a couple of times, and Bethany Cosentino, the singer, is a fun person to follow on Instagram and Twitter. Part of her appeal, honestly, is that she and I are the same age. So it was an interview with Beth that when discussing her love of all things California, a friend recommended that she catch up on her Didion. Even though I am one of the English degree’d, Joan Didion was not a name I encountered and decided to investigate myself. Now that I’ve read a couple of her books and more aware of her, her name has been popping up everywhere–whether she’s referenced in articles, name-dropped on The Mindy Project, or one of her books catches my eye at the bookstore.

The two books I started with were Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays. Reading these books

81hmN+GmlTLIt took me all summer to read Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Some essays were quite interesting, others kind of meh. The essay anthology is rightfully named Slouching Towards Bethlehem because it’s the best essay of that collection. JD is a master at painting a picture of those who inhabited Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s. The repeated praise for JD is she writes in a way that is precise and exact. And that’s that I found so good about this essay: she doesn’t waste time telling you what she thinks of the hippies, her exacting descriptions make it obvious how she sees them. This crystallized at the conclusion of the essay  when she describes children at the age of 5 being given acid. JD needn’t waste words on the absolutely absurdity and reckless behavior that is, because I could just feel it as she laid bare the facts.

JD is also excellent at deconstructing the American Dream. California, as she shows in her essays, seems to exemplify the empty promises of the American Dream. And in an observation that may be too on the nose, she notes that maybe California is the end of said dream because after California, there’s nowhere else to go. Hmm. Ever since teenage years, I’ve idealized the West Coast and always wanted to move out ~West~. But reading Didion made me stop and think: why do I want to live on the West Coast? What draws me to it? The empty promises? And on a bigger scale, why do we idealize places? There’s no perfect place in the world to live, despite what some may think.

220px-PlayItAsItLaysThe despair of the American dream is also quite evident in her short novel, Play It As It Lays. The main character Maria (Ma-rye-ah, not Ma-ree-ah) is a washed up actress in LA just floating from one day to the next without any direction. She’s unhappy, forced into a horrible, awful situation (trying to avoid spoilers here), and is generally passively accepting of how the way things are. Her life does not bring her joy or fulfillment, but Maria keeps on because that’s the hand she’s been dealt with. Reading Play It as It Lays took a lot out of me. It was depressing, horrifying, yet engrossing. Although the chapters are short, don’t read too quickly. JD’s concise writing means not everything is spelled out, and you will miss some major plot points. I wasn’t surprised to read comparisons to Hemingway–stylistically speaking, Play It as It Lays reminded me a lot of The Sun Also Rises, a book I hadn’t read in several years.

I’m glad to have finished these 2 books. It’s really easy to idealize places like California. And while the lies of the American Dream is nothing new, JD deconstructs it a way that is very visceral, even though it’s just words on a page. She’s given me a lot to ponder–I’d like to read more of JD’s work, but for now, a break is needed for the time being.

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