Didion v. Didion

In The Year of Magical Thinking, the writer picks on herself.

Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

In the Broadway production of Joan Didion’s celebrated memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the character Joan Didion is a woman with a mania for order and precision. She is a woman who prefers to be in control. After her husband, John Gregory Dunne, dies of a heart attack in their Manhattan living room, she obtains the EMT report, the physician’s record, the doorman’s log, and then she “cross-checks” the various documents with the goal of “assembling the facts.” When her adult daughter, Quintana, is admitted to the ICU with acute pneumonia and subsequently falls into septic shock, she memorizes the many medical terms she encounters (“I wanted names. I wrote them down. I looked them up.”) and terrorizes the hospital staff with her demands (“I do not distrust those in charge but I do feel compelled to manage them”). We are clearly to regard her behavior as a tad immoderate. “Errors are easy to find—if you’re me,” Vanessa Redgrave, playing Joan Didion, says crisply. She also frequently repeats a criticism Dunne used to level at her: Why do you always have to be right. Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go. This charge, mentioned briefly and late in the memoir, becomes, early on in the play, Didion’s self-flagellating refrain.

Those familiar with Didion’s writing know that control, especially of her sentences, is central to her work. Her lean, to-the-bone prose generally forgoes grammatical conventions, unnecessary adverbs, and flowery verbs. (She makes liberal use of the verb to be, of the uncluttered uniformity it offers.) She sees little virtue in the descriptive flourishes that characterize so much contemporary writing, preferring, instead, to allow meaning to arise from a few salient, well-considered details. Repetition of these details is a tool she frequently employs; in this way, she not only creates an incantatory sense of foreboding, she bewitches the reader into believing she is giving us more than she actually is. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published,” Didion writes of this tendency in The Year of Magical Thinking, in a passage oft-quoted for its rare descent into stylistic explication, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” In other words, meaning results as much from Didion’s idiosyncratic manipulation of words and their attendant rhythms as from what she actually says—or, rather, chooses not to say.

Didion’s reticence is even more pronounced when the information at hand is personal: an admission proffered here, an essential fact omitted there, and vast territories left unmentioned or unexplained. For all her invocation of I, she is never truly confessional. Her autobiographical writing might be described as a literary fan dance, in which she seduces the reader through revelatory feints but ultimately exposes very little. In The Year of Magical Thinking,for instance, we learn that she and Dunne frequently fought, but she doesn’t tell us what about. We learn that Quintana is gravely ill but are given almost no other personal details about her—what she looks like, what she does for a living, who she is when not lying in a hospital bed. This sort of withholding is also a form of control—of what her readers are allowed to learn, and, by extension, of her image. As we read Didion, a spectral presence emerges, faintly outlined yet indistinct enough to accommodate a reader’s own interpretation. Her impersonal approach to the personal has played a significant role in her celebrity. As often happens with the famous in other genres, her audience feels intimate with her while knowing nothing significant about her at all.

But as captivating as her exquisitely disciplined prose can be, her writing also resists theatrical dramatization. There are writers whose work would naturally lend itself to a one-woman show, but Didion is not among them. How to dramatize the character of Joan Didion, a writer at once so iconic and so enigmatic? (A task less complicated, perhaps, when the playwright is Joan Didion herself.) How to enact a story that stints on personal particulars, whose resonance and elegance derive from its restraint, and the rhythms of words on the page? It is almost as though Didion, faced with the daunting task of transposing her work to the stage, attempted to actualize its essence in her character. The precision of her prose is embodied in the precision of her person.

There is a dissonance between this characterization and Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of it. Redgrave, dressed in a gray ankle-length wool skirt, a simple white tunic, a long necklace, and dangly earrings—an ensemble that at once evokes Didion’s understated glamour and arty-bourgeois life—attacks the role with a kind of impassioned meticulousness. Her posture is pin-straight; she nods with schoolmarmish emphasis and gestures with her hands for accent. Not infrequently she enunciates with the polysyllabic care of an actress taking elocution lessons. (One of the play’s more awkward moments is her nearly slow-motion pronunciation of lacunae.) Her acting, genuinely moving when she expresses grief or loss, too often feels like a caricature of the way a very fastidious woman would conduct herself.

Redgrave’s vigorous portrayal also opposes the flat, clinical voice that haunts the book. One wishes that Redgrave and director David Hare had found a means of theatrically telegraphing Didion’s detached sensibility. Calista Flockhart’s benumbed, almost affectless performance in Neil LaBute’s Bash! several years ago comes to mind; or, more recently, Meryl Streep’s restrained turn as the frosty, unflappable Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Didion should have been played slightly less demonstratively, with a bit more subtlety and, it might be said, control.

But this is not the only incongruity created by the peculiar rendering of the character. That in the play Didion reproaches herself for her exacting nature—Why do you always have to be right?—also seems bizarre. If ever there was a situation in which an enthusiasm for accuracy and a propensity to manage one’s circumstances might prove useful, it is that which she confronted.Onstage, Didion remarks that she memorized the names of the many drugs administered to her unconscious daughter in the ICU, that she learned the terms for the various antibiotic-resistant (and often lethal) hospital infections. She marvels at her compulsion to correct the orderly responsible for transporting her daughter across the country in a helicopter when, while flying over Nevada, he snaps photos of what he calls “the Grand Canyon.” But is such behavior so remarkable in any mother? And, perhaps more relevantly, in any writer? What writer would not want to gather the facts and know exactly what happened? In the memoir, Didion criticizes the doctors for their ineptitude, the grief “experts” for their sweeping assumptions, and her own self for her magical thinking and failure to appreciate certain moments with Dunne. But she does not berate herself for her fastidiousness. And why should she? Her supposedly neurotic desire for control looks very much like coping. (Quintana died in August 2005, a year and a half after Dunne, and the play, unlike the memoir, treats her death at length.)

So why write her theatrical counterpart in this vein? For humor, perhaps. Some of her nitpicky moments provide a welcome respite from the somber material of the play. Then, too, stressing the character’s punctiliousness is a way of underscoring the somewhat facile message of the play: We cannot control what happens to our loved ones; we cannot bring the dead back or make the sick well; we must let them go. But it may also be that Didion bestows her character with concrete but general qualities to avoid confessing anything concrete about herself.

It is interesting that Didion has chosen to paint herself as some kind of control freak, particularly in a work that is arguably the least controlled of her career. In the play, the language is fairly loose-limbed. She is also more forthcoming than usual, telling us that she and Dunne sometimes walked out on each other; and that during one particularly nasty fight, about a film he wanted to quit, he sped up the Pacific Coast Highway in her Corvette. (For Didion, this is a lot of personal detail.) One wonders whether such candor made her nervous, if her rigid self-characterization is a way of tightening the reins, of dramatizing herself while giving little away.

One also has the sense that, three years later, she may have looked back on her book and viewed her actions in a harsher light. “This is about the speaker discovering that she is completely powerless, that the control she so prizes is nonexistent,” she wrote of the play in the New York Times. “I had never before thought of myself as a person prizing control. Only when I saw the play performed did I see that character clear, and I also saw her in the mirror.” Perhaps, then, the critical self-portrait that ultimately emerges from the play is an implicit criticism of the self she wrote into the memoir. Because for a writer, the chance to update a book—and the play is more update than adaptation—is the ultimate occasion to exercise one’s control. To update a memoir in particular is as close to an opportunity to manipulate the past, to control events, as any writer may get.