The Last Thing She Needed: A new biography of Joan Didion

Ian Penman in City Journal:

DidionWhy do I keep seeing this one image of Joan Didion so often recently? I’ve seen it crown two out of three recent profiles or reviews, and here it is again, in all its icy monochrome perfection, on the front of Tracy Daugherty’s outsize biography. It was even splashed across one side of a season’s briefly fashionable tote bag (the other side proclaiming MAGICAL THINKER, which seemed to me a most un-Didion-like phrase, even if it did sort of recycle one of her most recent titles). Is there some kind of demand being responded to here? Is there something in the air?

“Jacket photograph copyright 1970 Julian Wasser”—which makes the Didion in the photo 36 and returns us to a moment when the woozily optimistic saturnalia of the sixties was shifting down into a murkier time of serial overdose and retreat: the Exile on Main Street years. This was also high times for the so-called New Journalism—almost midway between Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Tom Wolfe’s clamorous manifesto-compilation of 1973. Didion (and her husband John Gregory Dunne) could be found in the contributors’ rolls of the latter, alongside burly big hitters like Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, and Hunter S. Thompson; but her presence on the page was markedly different from these other stars in the “nonfiction” firmament. She didn’t burst from the platform of her magazine work like some raucous volley of fireworks. Didion’s tone was more reserved, more quietly insinuating, and sometimes slightly disturbing; you might occasionally mistake the authorial “I” of those early pieces for a more astringent and censuring sensibility from an earlier century, navigating our choppy twentieth-century rapids.

More here.