I will be out of the country for several days, and not knowing when I might next see an internet connection, I thought it might be appropriate to sum up my year now rather than later. I wasn't exactly sure how I could begin to do this, until I was looking back over the list of books I read this year, and realized that there really was only one way. Like bookends she is there: Run River on one end, Slouching Towards Bethlehem on the other. This has been the year of Joan Didion.
I came late to the party. It was like discovering "Alone Again Or" and then someone telling you that they had been listening to Arthur Lee since the sixties and they were through with all that, yet you want nothing more than to listen to that trumpet line for days upon days. I hopped onto a very crowded bandwagon. Still. After Run River, I devoured The White Album in January, Democracy in March, April found Play It As It Lays, and November A Book of Common Prayer. If I had not felt it important to read other writers, I would have read nothing but Joan Didion this year.
It begins, of course, in what we remember.In February, I ordered Mahi Mahi ("flown in fresh from Hawaii this morning") at a West Side restaurant because I thought it was what Joan might do.
In April, I went with a friend to see her speak with poet W.S. Merwin, where they mused on indigenous migratory birds of the Hawaiian islands. Mr. Merwin suggested that they didn't stop flying until they reached the southern tip of Alaska, and Joan broke in: "Do we know they don't even stop once?"
Afterwards, she signed books, and I was shy to approach her, but did anyway, and mumbled something about how I had discovered her at just the right time in my life. And my memory has wiped away anything she might have said in reply. In my memory, she just smiles, and says: "Name?"
In June, I took other friends to see her read in Central Park, where she read "Goodbye To All That" and an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking. We cried where she couldn't, wouldn't: one of the two. Philip Gourevitch sat opposite her in a chair and asked mildly probing questions about her own obsession with words. "Yes, words and rivers. They're the only things that seem real to me." And the sky felt ripples of thunder, before finally breaking into the most glorious and powerful rains we had seen that summer. "Run for cover!" She shouted as we darted through trees and benches, flapping the weighted capes of wet sheets behind us, tossing aside useless umbrellas. Wet and inspired, I came home to find my husband napping, and I remember thinking that the world seemed too perfect for words and rivers, so prone to meandering.
It sounds like an unreasonable and wild obsession, possession even (as I thought to myself today on the bus, panicking, before I was exorcised by a woman who kindly told me to "have a blessed day"). But what more perfect writer could I have discovered on the early teetering edge of my thirties? Who has more to say about the condition of a woman's mind as she feels out the world, starts to finally realize who she is, and who she is not? And who can say it without sounding dogmatic? I cannot think of anyone else who so well describes this condition, this joy, this affliction.
It was the year when I realized the power of thirty, how it frees one to be as confident as one wants, without suffering the embarrassment of the misplaced and naive arrogance of one's twenties, and at the same time, I discovered thirty's shaming vulnerabilities, when one is still young and feeling fears with sharpened awareness. The year when I picked up my notebooks again after years of empty pages, the year when I decided to listen more and talk less (though I'm unsure if I succeeded here). The year when my own imagination several times got the better of me, the year of impossible scenarios played out months ahead in my mind. And these things were all there, mirrored on the page.
Every now and then I think I hear a rattlesnake, but my husband says that it is a faucet, a paper rustling, the wind.I have pried her voice into my writing, hoping to sound more fluid (as, apparently, have others), and, in the end, I just feel slightly creepy. Seeing all of this bared on the page, I know that I have said too much. But it is what Joan might have done. And so I bare my soul and order Mahi Mahi flown in from Hawaii, look towards thirty-one and fear that my year has been not mine at all, but hers.
(If now you are tired of hearing me ramble on about Joan Didion, go watch Lloyd Cole & The Commotions do it: "Rattlesnakes")