Everything here is a mess


Having dissected the pain of others for decades, Didion has spent the last few years turning the scalpel on herself. This introverted late phase is as coherent and revealing as Philip Roth’s. The essayist who once reprinted her own psychological evaluation has always used her personal story, but in her early years she only feinted at confession on the way to observations of the larger world. Beginning with Where I Was From, which presents California’s history as her own, she’s reversed the bait-and-switch, writing about those close to her as a way of bringing herself, finally, into public view. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” Didion wrote at the beginning of her first essay collection, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That warning, later echoed infamously by Didion’s contemporary Janet Malcolm, is a statement of mercenary purpose in the guise of a confession: not a preemptive apologia but an expression of grandiose, even nihilistic ambition. We think of memoirs, especially memoirs of grief, as a soft art, one that necessarily humanizes the writer. And Didion the memoirist is painfully human—heartsick, vulnerable, and honest about her fears. But she’s also as ruthless as she’s ever been, tearing down the constructs she’s built to protect herself and her family. If she’s selling anyone out with Blue Nights, it’s Joan Didion.

more from Boris Kachka at New York Magazine here.