Joan Didion is not so much a chronicler of American culture as its velvet-gloved eviscerator. With spare and penetrating syntax that strips all excess from her narratives, she has, over the last seven decades, gone straight to the withered heart of the matter in novels and essays that have become legendary. Two of her nonfiction books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, have taken on well-deserved iconic, even mythic, status.
Didion, who is now 86, has not published anything new in a while (her memoir of her daughter’s death, Blue Nights, appeared in 2011), but for the last few years she has been digging through her archives and notebooks and selecting fragments and abandoned pieces that offer a glimpse into her working process and her earlier self. Let Me Tell You What I Mean gathers 12 previously uncollected short pieces mostly written for magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, with a few dating to the tail end of the last century.
As a group, these essays are wide-ranging in subject, yet each displays the distinctive voice Didion has honed with precision. Whether she is profiling the studied perfection of then-first lady of California Nancy Reagan or the cultural significance of Martha Stewart on the cusp of her historic initial public offering, Didion allows her subjects to speak for themselves, inviting us to read between the lines and draw our own conclusions. At the height of the turbulent 1960s, this pioneer of new journalism could zero in on the discomfiting comfort of a Gamblers Anonymous meeting (“mea culpa always turns out to be not entirely mea”) or convey a proud veteran’s ambivalence about his son’s impending service in Vietnam during a 101st Airborne Association reunion in Las Vegas. Fans of Didion’s incisive fiction will delight in her candid reflection on why she abandoned the short story as a viable form early in her career.
Not unexpectedly, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is secondary Didion at best, but even minor offerings from this prose master are hard to dismiss—and equally hard to resist.