The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion
What is the reader’s take-away from The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s new biography of greatest-living-American-author Joan Didion?
Perhaps it’s The Nation writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s assessment of her as being “a neurasthenic Cher.”
Or perhaps that quote from her husband, author, and sometimes-writing-partner John Gregory Dunne, whose description of his marriage to her as “Living with [a] piranha.”
Or in a friendlier vein, this clipping, taken from John Leonard’s review of her novel Play It As It Lays in The New York Times:
“There hasn’t been another American writer of Joan Didion’s quality since Nathaniel West. She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it; and yet the characters go on bleeding afterwards.”
(For what it’s worth, John Leonard, ever the friend and fan, continues his praise-fest in his review of Didion’s compellation of essays The White Album with this: “Her nervous system is a San Andreas Fault. Language is her seismograph and style her sanity. Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion. Try to rearrange one of her sentences, and you’ve realized that the sentence was inevitable, a hologram.”)
Or perhaps it’s New York Magazine’s oblique statement: “Didion’s place in American letters is secure, if not easily summarized . . .”
Or finally, maybe it’s the conclusion that author Michael Cunningham presented to the National Book Foundation when Didion was presented with the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:
“Didionesque means, to me at least, a fearless and almost frighteningly astute vision of a world blandly and even cheerfully collapsing under the weight of its sorrows.”
However well these descriptions actually capture Didion and/or her work, and however many such insights co-exist within her bird-like frame, they most certainly exemplify author Daugherty’s eye for insightful, entertaining quotes. And these and many others populate Love Song with tales tall and short, and details that shimmer in front of the reader’s eyes like the sunset reflected golden on the Pacific.
Which is a damned good thing when the biography in question has in no way been sanctioned by its subject. And, given Didion’s refusal to cooperate, cooperation was denied by those who know her best, leaving what direct quotes that the book has on offer from previously published pieces or from folks like Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana Roo’s husband’s son from a previous marriage.
In a situation like this, what is a Didion biographer (and previous biographer of Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme—both of whom, however briefly, pop up in these pages as well) to do?
Scrupulously research—the product of which is largely what Mr. Daugherty has on offer here. Every word written by Didion has been parsed, every magazine article, review, political thought piece, essay and novel has been combed for meaning, context and signs of personal and artistic evolution. Nothing is wasted; all is used.
Because of this, Love Song succeeds perhaps better than it should. And Daugherty, with his novelist’s eye for the “telling detail” is also a master of the anecdote, such as this:
“’It bothered her father: [Quintana] didn’t seem to want to read anything he’d written, or that I’d written,’ Didion said. ‘When I asked her about it, she said, “When you read something, you form an opinion about it, right? I don’t want to form an opinion about my mother and father.”’”
However, it is in terms of coming to understand Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana—an amazingly complex being, who, even as a small child mimicked her mother’s standoffishness by abruptly ending conversations in the same way that her mother did, by suddenly announcing, “I have to work.”—and their mixed-bag of a mother/daughter relationship that the book most nearly fails.
Certainly, the biographer was helped by the fact that Didion herself wrote a book, Blue Nights, about Quintana, her life and slow, sad death; but it is Daugherty’s over-dependence upon that volume that irritates. Perhaps because Blue Nights, published in 2011, is so very recent. Or perhaps because it is so well known. Either way, the reader is heard to murmur, “Tell me something I didn’t already know . . .”
As a child, ripped away from her beloved Malibu beach house and forced to move to Brentwood. In her youth, bounced back and forth across the globe as her parents restlessly embarked on one writing project after another, interviewing striking grape pickers one week, off to Hawaii or Paris the next. Sent to stay with her grandparents in Sacramento early on after someone finally convinced Didion that is was less than good parenting for her to take baby Quintana off to Vietnam with her when she planned to get the dirt on that dirty war. Ultimately heckled by her birth mother, who craved her attention if not her love. Ultimately diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Ultimately an admitted alcoholic who never could quite control her cravings. Ultimately dead and gone after a long, slow and, even now, puzzling decline, topped off by a catastrophic accidental fall at LAX.
That Joan Didion never quite knew what to make of her daughter or how to mother her seems obvious in retrospect. Would that Daugherty had had the opportunity of speak with either the mother or the child, or had had other means of getting under the weight of the printed words that are already on record—how much better then his book would be.
But in spite of this, there is a good bit still on offer. After all, Didion and Dunne were much more forthcoming on the particular love/hate of their own relationship.
“In Play It As It Lays, Encino is a faceless part of L.A. where [the book’s protagonist] Maria’s domestic dreams die in a bloody pail. (‘Didion’s description of Maria’s abortion and her subsequent horror at the waste, the fetus in the pail . . . is all too true,’ wrote critic Barbara Harrison.) ‘You familiar with this area, Maria?’ asks a doctor’s go-between in the novel. ‘Nice homes here. Nice for kids.
“Adding his own nuance to the mix, Dunne often told friends at parties during this period—sometimes joking, sometimes not—that his marriage was a week-to-week affair.
“Contributing to their difficulties at this time were the stresses of writing, money, lots of drinking, Dunne’s quickness to anger, and Didion’s ‘theatrical temperament’—especially, it seems, in 1969, and again three years later, when, Didion wrote, ‘John and I were having a fight [and] he took it out on Quintana. She cried. I told her she and I were leaving, she and I were going to LAX, she and I were flying away from him.’
“Without placing blame on either party, one of the couple’s old friends said Didion should have taken Quintana and gone to live with [her parents] Frank and Eduene. Didion’s sufferings, whatever, their causes, were as intense as Maria’s tensions with her husband in the novel.
“’Did they have trouble? Oh, yes. And all those stories you read in the paper about Joan’s reclusiveness? I don’t understand why you’d think they’re true,’ [Didion’s friend] Eve Babitz told me. ‘Maybe it was John shouting over her. And she preferred it. John could be the idiot and she didn’t have to be. He pounded down doors, and that’s why Quintana hated him. Joan would never leave him—he got to be the obnoxious one. She thought staying with him proved she had character.’”
Ultimately, John Gregory Dunne summed up their life together with this:
“Twenty-four years, nearly a quarter of a century, five houses, seven books published, four film scripts produced, a million or two words pounded out on typewriter and computer; a marriage that survived, a daughter born and raised to her majority, three siblings dead, plus a mother and an aunt, a suicide in the family and a murder . . .”
Dunne would, in 2003, die suddenly of a heart condition that had plagued him for years. And Didion, the journalist, the essayist, the memoirist, would have her greatest success in writing of his death and her grief with open eyes in A Year of Magical Thinking, in which she explored the cracks around the edges of her life, places where widows seldom choose to look.
Daugherty, too, searches the full vista of the human existence; and Love Song combines the Didion Saga with tales of the ’60s (Manson, Morrison, Mamas & Papas, drugs, The Haight, Malibu, yellow Corvettes, Nixon, and Vietnam) with the wild golden poppy fields of California (and a decent, thoughtful exploration of the concept of California, the Golden West), with the riddle of celebrity (largely based upon Dunne’s brother Dominick and his rise and fall and resurrection, all played out under the Hollywood sign) and the ever-present iron fist of the New York literati.
It is all almost too much for a single volume to contain.
And the reader can only imagine what Didion thinks of it all. . . .
Famously, after breaking off their association with Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters in the creation of the infamous Hollywood remake of A Star Is Born, Dunne/Didion stated that the finished film was comprised of their beads, but not their necklace.
Which gives us our closing metaphor.
As it must be noted here that Love Song most certainly consists of beads and beads taken (stolen?) from Joan Didion’s jewelry box, but the string upon which the resultant necklace has been hung is the sole property of Tracy Daugherty and he—for better or worse—knotted it where, when and how he liked in assembling The Last Love Song (and how I hate that soppy title) into the compendium that it is.