Book Review: South And West by Joan Didion

 
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SOUTH AND WEST

by Joan Didion

 

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Old age has not stopped Joan Didion from being an extraordinary author and personality. To her fans’ delight, 2017 saw the release of the book South and West and a Netflix documentary directed by Joan’s nephew Griffin Dunne, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which largely features interviews with the now-83-year-old writer. South and West is her first release since 2011’s Blue Nights, and, as the subtitle (From a Notebook) indicates, this is less of a narrative and more of a collection of notes which the author took on two separate occasions during her road trips in the South (and West) of the States in the 1970s.

Taking notes is second nature to Didion, who was a journalist and non-fiction writer well before becoming a novelist. She has famously been the icon of the new literary style of New Journalism, or Literary Journalism, a hybrid between the genres of journalism, fiction, and memoir. Hilton Hals (writer and director) and David Hare (playwright director) are two of the figures which in the documentary attempt to define what she does in writing:

The idea that you could actually write the history of your time … and that this could be a form which would be as supple, and as versatile, and as nuanced as fiction, is something quite extraordinary. She makes it do things that nobody ever made it do before.
— David Hare
You couldn’t make a cohesive narrative about the times, because the times weren’t cohesive. So she found this way, which is to kind of make a verbal record of the times.
— Hilton Hals

South and West gives an exact idea of what Didion did in writing: it is not a cohesive narrative, it is not fiction, it is not an essay. The reader is brought to the basic level of seeing through the author’s eyes, seeing what she sees, yet Joan’s prose is so rich, descriptive, poetic, and beautiful that it feels very far from the language of a reporter. Everything in her notes is indicative of her particular vision: the atmosphere of New Orleans, for instance, “never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” However, the motives which attracted Joan, who grew up in Sacramento, California, to explore the South in August 1970 are cultural and somewhat political, although largely mysterious: “I had only some dim and unformed sense … that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, drove through the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, mainly stopping in small cities. Just as she is not sure of what it is she’s looking for, she is not sure of what she has found, and the book does not attempt to make any arguments. On the opposite, it rather made me think of one of those dreams in which you are walking and, on your way, you meet all sorts of different people telling you things which resonate with particular, though inexplicable, significance as the colors and shapes around you also reverberate mysteriously. Joan’s description of the South aids the creation of a dream-like, or better, nightmarish, atmosphere: the mood is ever heavy, dark, slow, stifling, with an underlying sense of decay and death. Snakes dominate various scenes. A woman gets out of her car, falls, and dies in slow-motion. In New Orleans, “Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die.”

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The second section of the book is much shorter than that which is dedicated to the South, and is set in California. It consists of notes which Joan took in 1976 as she worked on a piece for the Patty Hearst trial, but has nothing to do with the trial; rather, possibly, with her own Californian upbringing. Certainly, the road trip through the troubling and terribly exotic Deep South is the center of the book, and is most compelling in its representations of the South and of the South’s relations to US history, to the past and the present and the future, which come across through the various characters which Didion and her husband meet.

Dense, intense, and sharp at the same time, South and West is of course a must for Joan Didion’s fans and a good starting point to otherwise get to know this writer. I also recommend watching Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix as it made me realize that Joan’s life and personality are just as interesting, rich, and inspiring as her writing.


 
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ELISA SABBADIN

Did her BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, and is currently doing her MA in English and American Modern Literature in Cork. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.

 

Elisa Sabbadin