Mistaking the New York Bridges
Love both of these accounts of mistaking one New York bridge for another, written more than three decades apart:
A deck, built onto not a mere ledge but a bona fide cliff, stretching out over the sea; waves crashing against mountainous rocks as tide comes in; we sit there on that ominous platform, rum cocktails balanced effortlessly on the arms of our deckchairs, shaded by palms and other tropical species of trees I couldn’t name; and me, occasionally hypnotized by the sheer force of that water down below, relaxed by it, an incongruous book open on my lap.
It’s a slight book, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, the kind you can read in a sitting or two and feel as though you’ve really accomplished something. In that way, it’s perfect for travel, a state of existence in which someone of my constitution must stifle the instinctive belief that something of productive value must be checked off every single day. Although, it would have been better maybe to read some of her other work in this location, where her perspective is detached and through that detachment she is able to penetrate entire eras’ most repressed and guarded sensibilities. That would maybe fit better with crashing waves on a Caribbean coast so remote that we are the only guests in each of the two inns that take us in over a period of three days; nowhere is there air conditioning, even though it is well over 90 degrees on a daily basis.
"To really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female."
No. Didion is one of the few female writers that has crossover gender appeal. I know a number of males who adore her. Something that probably can’t be said of Caitlin Flanagan.
In Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion’s protagonist, Maria, makes a list of things she will never do:
Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.
I thought I’d play, too:
Sarah made a list of things she would never do. She would never: go on the Sex and the City tour. She would never: use her child’s likeness as her profile pic, use a French word when an English one would more than suffice, kiss a girl to impress a boy, wear gold jewelry poolside. She would never: read US Weekly on the subway.
Despite my longstanding, tenuously controlled obsession with Joan Didion, from which such things have been extracted as a passing interest in Los Angeles, photocopied essays thrust into the hands of unwitting acquaintances, and the title of this blog (callout to the only person who ever got the reference on his own), I never read any of her fiction until this past week, when I fluttered through Play It as It Lays.
It’s a slight novel, about a woman for whom circumstance has made an impending nervous breakdown a credible option. She’s married to a film producer, who took her from modeling in New York to occasional acting, but mostly lingering, in LA. It reminds me of the first pages of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, where this happens:
From his fourth to his tenth year he did the country with his mother in her father’s private car, from Coronado, where his mother became so bored that she had a nervous breakdown in a fashionable hotel, down to Mexico City, where she took a mild, almost epidemic consumption.
At first, I was sure that the protagonist, Maria, was merely a standin for Didion herself, a woman who has maintained a decades-long, cerebrally antagonistic relationship with just, life. But by the final chapters, I knew she was writing about another kind of person, because when Didion writes about her own nervous breakdowns, they have historial weight to them – place and time matter, a lot – but Maria is simply adrift in a superficial milieu that she doesn’t much consider, despite what the summary on the back cover says.
In my favorite Didion essays, like, for instance, “In the Islands,” she writes about places like the Royal Hawaiian Hotel via her own experience there, but also via the role it has played in society – the people that stayed there had lives “lived always on the streets where the largest trees grow.” (One of my all-time favorite Didionisms.) This class of people exist outside of the thrust and pull of the world’s great events, enabled by their wealth, etc. This part of the essay is at least as important as Didion’s first-person recollections, and it’s the part that was missing from Play It as It Lays. And that’s why, I’m fairly certain, she’s a famous essayist more than a famous novelist.
Still, it’s undeniably Joan Didion; the prose still makes one shake her head in awe and, along with those black-and-white photos of a small, glamorous, disaffected woman, wish for the 1000th time that she could be her.
From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently. -p.5
It came to her that in the scenario of her life this would be what was called an obligatory scene. -p.50
She pretended to herself that she was keeping the baby, the better to invite disappointment, court miscarriage. -p.63
Maria could never keep up her end of the dialogue with hairdressers. -p.120
Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills. -p.136