A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, has the metaphorical power of great fiction.Foreword by Hilton Als
Last year I had had a copy of Let Me Tell You What I Mean floating around on my TBR pile for a number of months, but it took the sad news that Joan Didion had died on the 23rd December 2021, for me to finally tuck her book into my walking backpack.
However, thanks to various seasonal and Covid-related events at this time, the book languished in my bag waiting for some good walking days to return. It finally happened last week. The rain held off, isolation periods were over, and I was finally able to go for a nice long walk on my day off work that culminated in a nice long sit in my favourite cafe with a large coffee and time for a leisurely read.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean contains twelve essays mostly from the earlier part of Didion’s writing career. They were quick, easy reads. The essays were a curious mix of opinion, interview and observation. They were also heavily American-centric making some cultural references obscure to the overseas reader. I found they worked best when the personal was mixed in with the cultural as in the 1968 essay about William Randolph Hearst, A Trip to Xanadu.
My knowledge of Hearst is probably limited to the 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. But for those who grew up in California, like Didion did, his name and his ‘phantasmagoric barony‘, San Simeon, are part of their own childhood stories. Therefore, a tour of the house allowed Didion to explore her own expectations with what the house was during Hearst’s time, and what it has now become as a tourist destination.
After reading Als foreword I was expecting to find the essays harder work than they actually were. Didion’s tone was dry and thoughtful, yet also conversational. Each essay was carefully worded and crafted but they appeared effortless. Many of Didion’s well-known opinions were evident early on in her writing as we saw in Alicia and the Underground Press (1968).
I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias. For the writer to pretend that he has none lends the entire venture a mendacity.
One of my favourite essays was On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice (1968). It took a pivotal moment in her young life that was initially devastating but which allowed her to take a different path to the one she thought she would take, that ‘worked out alright.’ It contained some nice undertones about resilience, persistence and self-determination. However, even in 1968 Didion was noting and concerned by the rise in ‘parental hopes‘ that now accompanied most young people finishing school.
Of course my mother and father wanted me to be happy, and of course they expected that happiness would necessarily entail accomplishment, but the terms of that accomplishment were my affair.
There was a rather biting piece on a young Nancy Reagan as the wife of the governor of California, a homage to Orwell on why Didion writes, a discussion on the women that Robert Mapplethorpe chose to photograph, a scrutiny of the brand that is Martha Stewart (before her time in jail) and a piece on Hemingway that almost convinced me to try one more book by him.
You care about punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You care about the “ands” and the “buts” or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.Last Words | 1991
I’m not sure I will race out to read more of Didion’s essays, but I am keen to read The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights as grief and loss memoirs will always find a place on my reading list. I sometimes wonder if I am trying to ward off the evil eye by reading so many books on this topic. Or perhaps I am simply trying to prepare myself for the inevitable?
Let Me Tell You What I Mean will appeal to the Didion aficionado’s. There was also enough of interest to tempt a newbie like me to want to try some more.
Title: Let Me Tell You What I Mean Author: Joan Didion Jacket design: Jo Thomson ISBN: 9780008451752 Imprint: 4th Estate Published: 4th February 2021 Format: Hardback Pages: 149
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.