Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Joan Didion and the art of poor introduction

I met Joan Didion. She was appearing at a church in Berkeley to promote Where I Was From, which I had purchased from Cody's Books.

I found out about the reading the day it was taking place. I was doing one of my run-from-work-to-the-bookstore jaunts.

"She's coming to read tonight," The person behind the counter informed me, whereupon I ran back to work, called Hockeyman, and told him of our evening plans.

This was in late 2003, about three weeks before John Gregory Dunne died. Quintana, their daughter, was still a healthy newlywed. Everything was still in place.

The church was packed. Didion wore all black: a sweater, short skirt, tights, and beautiful suede lace-ups that screamed "Manhattan" in an understated way. She was indeed thin, but she's a tiny woman, child-sized, really, with incongruously large hands.

Didion was interviewed by Vendela Vida, whose achievements include the novel Now You Can Go and marrying Dave Eggers. Vida was in her early thirties. She was as equipped to interview Didion as I am to go deep sea diving. Her questions, alas, lacked the sea's depth, and though I was thrilled to see Didion in the flesh, I couldn't understand why the event organizers couldn't dig up a better interviewer. We were mere blocks from Didion's Alma Mater, and even if everyone at Berkeley was busy that November night, it must be noted the surrounding area is choked with notable writers.

We suffered through Vida's well-meaning if idiotic questions ("What influence does music have on your writing?" was one of the gems.) Didion was gracious. The audience was very large-brooch-and-beret Berkeley, that is, the intellectual types who vacation in Paris garrets and read Proust in the original. You get the idea.

There was a long line for the book signing. We were instructed to keep it brief, as Ms. Didion was exhausted. By the time my turn came, I felt like Wayne and Garth meeting Aerosmith. I mumbled something incoherent about what her work meant to me. She just looked at me like, yeah, yeah, heard it all before.

I thought about that evening for a long time afterward. Didion and her family were, to me, the writerly equivalent of the Kennedys--talent, money, good breeding, impeccable roots, slightly disreputable relatives, tragedy (Didion's niece, actress Dominique Dunne, was strangled in Los Angeles). Didion lived the uber-New York writer's life, complete with that incredible ability to craft those amazing sentences.

Then Dunne died, which was upsetting enough. But then Quintana also died, and I understood the fallacy of the perfect life.

Then came The Year of Magical Thinking, with its attendant awards, and now we have We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, the Everyman's Library of Collected Non-Ficition.

I started the book last night. This necessitated reading the introduction by John Leonard.

My mother warned me the introduction was bad. But it's worse than bad.

It's Godawful. John Leonard's writing credits include being the former editor of the New York Times Book Review and writing for Harper's and The Nation. Maybe he's better when he isn't cowed by his material. I hope so.

"They come at you (he is referring to her sentences) if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves." (x)

Gnomic haikus?

"As usual, of course, this bad news is fun to read, in a prose that moseys (Moseys! God help us!) from sinew to schadenfreude to incantation, with liturgical/fatidic tendencies (Slashes lend academic gravity. Heed this, o budding grad students) toward the enigmatic and oracular, seasoned sarcastically." (xii)

Reading this sort of thing, it is easy to understand Didion's famous tendencies toward migraine, nerves, and judicious doses of bourbon. If somebody wrote about my writing like this, I'd jump off the Bay Bridge.

But then a wonderful thing happens: the introduction ends, giving way to Didion's forward to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Her words about dislocation, centers flying apart, and the inability to find meaning in life are balm.

It's always nice to find people who think like you do.

My advice to all comers, then, is to skip the introduction. Amuse yourself with the scholarly timeline that plots the events of Didion's life against politcal goings-on and the publication of Henderson the Rain King. Plot your life against hers. Compare. Note your artistic worthlessness along this timeline. Realize that perhaps the only people equal to the task of introducing Joan Didion are John Dunne and Quintana Roo Dunne Michael.

Sadly, neither are available.


Anonymous Kurt in Seattle said...

Hi Barking Kitten,

Ms. Didion visited the Seattle Public Library about a year ago to read from The Year of Magical Thinking. I thought the questions from the audience were pretty good. See the video at

November 26, 2006 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barking Kitten,

Thank you for your opinions on the introduction. I read it in despair, thinking it too erudite and deep, but upon finishing, thought maybe John Leonard, whose writings I had not read, might be trying to fashion his sentences after Didion, an attempt that is best left unrealized.

Perhaps noone should even attempt an introduction. It just feels like a betrayal.

I feel nothing but the highest awe to near reverance really, of Didion. You read her, and the world changes, not always positively, but in this way that lifts a gossamer veil of every subject she broaches.

I've obsessively read and re-read her non-fiction, finding in it new gems each time, an art that continuously gives.

January 05, 2008 11:15 AM  

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