It has been with me since early autumn shortly after its release, and I have been working my way through it slowly. It feels like going down a long path with someone I thought I knew and respected, and I am nearing the end of the journey, I am not sure if its a person I like or if she projects back to me too many of my own qualities.
The book is The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Nearly 600 pages cover her more than 80 years with more than 100 more pages of notes She first had an influence on me more than 40 years ago, part of the school of new journalism that heavily influenced me. She has never written a memoir per se, but her best work has always been deeply personal and detached at the same time. Wading through the turmoil in the 1960s, taking refuge in Malibu in the 1970s, taking on the insanity of the Reagan era, she felt like a guide at intermittent moments through the decades.
She faded out of my consciousness until a decade ago when her The Year of Magical Thinking felt especially relevant when I was in such a year myself in between the death of my two parents and shortly before losing an aunt to suicide and the loss of two cats who had been with me nearly years. At a time when self help books on the topic left me feeling bereft, this books really spoke to me. It didn’t offer hope or answers nor even comfort of a fellow soul searching for answers. It felt more like hearing a good blues singer when you are feeling blue yourself.
As I race towards the final chapters of The Last Love Song and the time of Didion’s most recent — and likely last — book, The Blue Hours, I am not sure I want to take the journey to the end. Her questioning that her skills as a mother and decisions make it a painful read. Years earlier she stated that analyzing feelings serves no purpose. All the signals seem to point to there being nothing at the end of the long ride.
And the contradictions throughout her life keep coming up as a recurring theme. She was a fan of Goldwater and John Wayne who despised Nixon and Reagan. She was part of the “old Californians” who looked down on the children of Okie migrants, but she came to speak with their accent having grown up with them and own ancestors migrated through a no less scrappy path, albeit nearly a century earlier. She attacked Woody Allen for being self absorbed and pretentious, something fellow “old Californian” Pauline Kael accused her of being. Similar projections permeated throughout her career, as well as accusations of her being mean to everyone from Nancy Reagan to working class San Bernadino residents.
As I near the end of reading the accounting of her life, I find myself questioning what drew me to her all those years ago and rereading her own works with a new perspective. I am reminded of how much I despise memoirs but embrace essays based on personal perspective. After not posting much but doodles on this spot, I find myself wanting to return to content, knowing the best way to tell the story is not by focusing on the plot head on but the tiny details on the edges that may often get ignored but tell more than the flash in the foreground.