The Witness You Want to Be

by Hasan Altaf

In their outlines, all of Joan Didion's novels seem more or less the same: The protagonist is always a woman, in some way “troubled”; there are always men, usually two, usually powerful in some way; there is sometimes a son but always a daughter, who is generally what the woman is “playing for,” as Maria Wyeth puts it in Play It As It Lays (1970): “What I play for here is Kate.” The stories of the troubled women torn between the two men and trying to save or reconnect with or find their Joan-Didion-001children do not, in general, end happily; the children remain lost, the men too are gone (divorce, death, abandonment, some combination thereof), and at the end the woman we've been following is alone and still in some way “troubled.”

The first time I read Didion's novels, I read them all at once, and the similarities began to annoy me: If they were all going to be the same, what was the point in reading more than one? (There are other writers who do this, who write the same story time and time again, and those in general I abandon after the first; Didion's style is what always kept me coming back.) Recently, however, as a way of preparing for the publication of Blue Nights, I went back and reread the novels, starting with Run, River (1963) and ending with The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). The second read-through answered this question for me. It also answered another, perhaps more important question – what is the point for the writer in telling the same story so many times?

I still feel that the characters in Didion's novels are almost interchangeable (Treat Morrison can stand in for Jack Lovett, Inez Victor and Charlotte Douglas have much in common) but as a writer I don't think she is particularly interested in her characters. The real subject of her novels seems to me to be systems, structures, societies. Each of the novels is set in a different world – Sacramento agricultural society, Hollywood, “the three or four solvent families in Boca Grande” – and these worlds all have their own rules for their own games. The protagonists of the novels are slightly out of sync with their societies; they do not or cannot play the game they are expected to. Maria Wyeth again: “I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?”

More than that, these are all closed-off worlds that are under some kind of threat, as the Sacramento Valley faces development in Run, River or as the war in Vietnam changes the American political landscape in Democracy (1984). In her novels what Didion writes about is an individual's inability, failure or refusal to operate successfully within a system or society that is not even on its own terms entirely successful anymore. This is of course what Didion's essays are famous for, too, and what I think I love most about them (beyond of course that style) – Didion operates at the place where the personal and the political intersect, where the failures of an individual or a group come across something larger. The theme is expressed most obviously in Where I Was From (2003), in which the author's personal history and the history of California are explored side by side, but it was there from the beginning. Even as Didion's focus turns more personal, in The Year of Magical Thinking (2006) and now Blue Nights (2011), the same theme is there. Perhaps the “trajectory” has simply turned around.

But focusing on the novels: Reading all of them together has another impact, too, which is for a writer I think more striking. It's in the narration, the point of view, and how that changes from one book to the next. Run, River could be seen as a more or less traditional third-person novel (for the most part), but that was already beginning to break by Play It As It Lays, which is told largely in the third person but includes sections from the perspectives of Maria Wyeth, her husband Carter, and their friend Helene. The tension between what the character could say and what the writer wanted us to know was obvious even in Run, River, and the later novels all deal with this in different ways. In Democracy Didion directly inserts herself, as Joan Didion; in The Last Thing He Wanted the “I” is another character, a journalist following a story.

While my favorite of her novels is probably for now Run, River (it's a first novel, a younger novel, a novel of nostalgia and homesickness), the device I find most interesting is in A Book of Common Prayer (1977). For this novel, Didion invents a new character, one who has no real equivalents as such in the other books: Grace Strasser-Mendana, a first-person narrator who not only has her own story but also somehow manages, plausibly, to give us the perspective of Charlotte Douglas. As she tells us Charlotte’s story, she creates her own, and we end up with two strands intertwined – the novel’s final line, Grace saying “I have not been the witness I wanted to be,” hits us once for Charlotte and once for Grace.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1978, Didion said that the device of third person and first person together of Play It As It Lays emerged simply because she wasn't “good enough” to tell the whole story in the first person. She added, “The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing.” That does seem to make things a little easier for the writer, but if that were the only issue, I don't think she would have continued to use variations on that device in her other novels, too. There is something more important, or perhaps just more consistent, at work.

If everything we write is in some way autobiographical, in some way about ourselves (which based on my own experience seems to be reasonably accurate), with these disjointed narrators Didion has found a way in which we can both “be” ourselves and “observe” ourselves directly. We all have this tendency, I think – at the same time as we live our lives, we're watching them, narrating them, telling a story to make sense out of them. “Joan Didion” and Inez Victor worked together at Vogue, they met later in Kuala Lumpur; Grace Strasser-Mendana and Charlotte Douglas could be seen as the two sides of a coin, women from the American West who somehow wound up in Boca Grande. The narrators and the protagonists reflect our own conflicting impulses, our own ability (and need) to analyze our lives as we live them. The difference might just be that most of us have this ability, to some extent, while people such as Maria Wyeth or Charlotte Douglas do not. As Inez Victor puts it, in Democracy, memory is the major casualty of a life in politics; extend that outwards. (We also get the chance, with this method, to rewrite the story, to have it a different way, as Didion does at the end of The Last Thing He Wanted: “I want those two to have been together all their lives” – another natural impulse that in fiction frequently gets suppressed.)

Joan Didion's novels are of course pleasurable as novels – the style, the dialogue, the weather (“Anyone can do weather,” she writes in Democracy, which is true but not entirely accurate; anyone can do weather but not everyone can do weather like Joan Didion). Reading them simply as stories did not quite work for me, but reading them again, as a “writer,” did; in sequence, they seemed like another kind of education, a new lesson. The first lesson was the hopeless kind that leads to several futile attempts to “do weather” like Joan Didion, but the second – a lesson in possibilities, in purpose – will, hopefully, stick. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a famous phrase of Didion's; you can see it working itself out in her novels, and for me it seemed the gift of a kind of freedom. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we need to, however we need to; we can both live our lives and then shape them; we can imagine every different ending. We just can’t all do it quite like Joan Didion.