An eloquent work on the life of Joan Didion (b. 1934), fashioning her story as no less than the rupture of the American narrative.
Didion’s works of fiction, nonfiction, and journalism relentlessly probed the times in which they emerged. In this wonderfully engaging biography, Daugherty (English and Creative Writing/Oregon State Univ.; Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, 2011, etc.) wisely sticks to Didion’s near obsession with making sense of an increasingly incoherent narrative during the tumultuous decades of the waning 20th century. Showing the “construction of persona” of the California-raised author, Daugherty examines Didion’s exploration of the concept of the Western-moving pioneer, resilient and stoical in the face of any calamity, a trope underscored by her mother’s somewhat depressed motto, “what difference does it make?” The author also discusses Didion’s journal keeping, which fed her penchant for eavesdropping; her early stylistic training under Berkeley instructor Mark Schorer and his “channeling of [Joseph] Conrad; her “frailty” and devotion to being the outsider; and her maddening “elisions,” first honed from reading Hemingway. Didion’s early pieces of New Journalism for Vogue—where she spent her early formative years, until the mid 1960s—reveal the “helter skelter” process that shaped her work: the contingency and chance, rather than the deliberation that critics assumed. In book reviews, movie-star profiles, and political reporting, she was struggling to find an “effective American voice.” Enter Time writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she married after the publication of her first novel, Run, River, in 1963, and with whom she moved back to California to work in the more lucrative industry of TV and film. Daugherty devotes much of the later pages of his biography to their remarkable literary partnership, which ended with his sudden death in 2003—an event that inspired her haunting memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2003).
A dogged biographer elicits from Didion’s life much more than tidy observations of “morality and culture.”