by Leanne Phillips
Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light is a collection of twenty-five essays, edited by Steffie Nelson, exploring the myriad ways in which Joan Didion has influenced and shaped contemporary writers. What is most fascinating about this anthology is that each writer’s story is so distinctive. “Each author finds a unique entry point,” Nelson writes in her introduction. That is to be expected to some extent, of course, but I found the breadth and depth of these differences are what give the anthology its heart. Didion is famously inscrutable, yet she seems to have given each of these writers whatever they needed and were ready to receive. Nelson writes in her introduction that Didion “held California up like a diamond, revealing each facet (and flaw) ….” This anthology does the same for Didion, functioning as a pentacosagon prism through which we are invited to see Didion in all her colors.
There was a lot to love about this anthology even before I cracked its cover. The project started as a live literary event in 2015 featuring fifteen readers. The anthology expands the project to include twenty-five writers, twenty of them women, and all of them journalists or former journalists. In the anthology’s pages, I found a group of writers who honor the places from whence they came and who pay tribute to a writer who helped pave the way for them. A writer who, Tracy McMillan proclaims, “made writing look and feel like rock and roll.”
Nearly all of the writers included in this anthology came to California from elsewhere. A number of them left New York for California as a respite from the East Coast city’s perceived hardness. Some came away disappointed, the promise of California unfulfilled. In “The Opposite of Cool,” Joshua Wolf Shenk writes that he moved to Los Angeles after realizing that “less pressure came down” on his L.A. friends. Shenk “thought L.A. would be a softer way to live but [he] was surprised at its hard edges.”
Others, like Ann Friedman, found their “golden rhythm” in California. In the anthology’s first piece, “Hello to All This,” Friedman writes about her relocation from Missouri to New York and then to California. Friedman’s relationship with New York wasn’t the eight-year love affair with the sad ending that Didion documents in “Goodbye to All This.” Rather, Friedman experiences a “brief New York tryst” that, in the end, she realizes was “always meant to be platonic.” Those who don’t appreciate California’s easier way of life, Friedman writes, “equate comfort with complacency, calmness with laziness. If you’re happy, you’re not working hard enough.” Didion drifted from a New York that had become tedious, a lover that hadn’t fulfilled its promises to her, a place where “the golden rhythm” had been broken. Friedman never made the same connections with New York that Didion had. Friedman didn’t reject New York; she embraced California.
Among my favorite essays in the anthology are those describing something deeper and almost spiritual that a number of the women writers gained from Didion and her work. Catherine Wagley explodes the fragility myth that follows Didion in “That Was a Very Pretty Image.” Sarah Tomlinson writes about the confidence she drew from Didion’s writing in “On Tour with a Reluctant Oracle.” In “Why I Don’t Answer the Phone: A Conversation with Joan Didion about Self-Respect,” Linda Immediato takes stock of her life by cleaning her room, mindful of Didion’s admonition to “be cautious of misplaced self-respect.”
In “A Letter to Joan on Turning Fifty-Five,” Tracy McMillan offers gratitude for the success she found once she “embraced [her] inner” Joan: “After decades of playing small, I finally stopped whining, stopped complaining, worked harder, and spent more time alone, just like you told me to.” Didion’s guidance worked out well for the thrice amicably divorced McMillan: “I got the career. I got the baby. I got allll the husbands. I even got California.”
In “Despair and Doing,” Su Wu writes about Didion’s migraine headaches and her own depression, about moving forward while incapacitated, about trusting in “the possible coexistence of doing and despair,” the thing which, Wu “suspect[s] … is what makes Didion such a beacon, for so many writers or at least the emotionally unstable.”
“Didion has been accused so often of glamorizing depression, but instead what she’s glamorizing is the slim possibility of depression not hollowing one out, of despair and doing. I could still get out of bed today, and still move to Mexico with him as we did, and still hope to write a poem he would love as much as I love his work, or at least I could finish this sentence. I can still try, through the sheer plain sadness, to do the best with my life.”
Most of the essays are tightly tied to Didion and her work, some more loosely, and some hilariously. In “The Last Private Man: From Howard Hughes to Jeff Goldblum,” Dan Crane compares Goldblum’s contemporary brand of approachable celebrity with the asocial celebrity of Howard Hughes, described by Didion in “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”: “Unlike the Howard Hughes of Didion’s essay … Jeff Goldblum didn’t become famous in order to hide. Jeff Goldblum is everywhere, and Jeff Goldblum is accessible.” And Jeff Goldblum appeared in Crane’s band’s music video, because “Jeff Goldblum is game.”
As a native Californian, I found that some of my favorite essays in the collection are by writers like me, writers who didn’t come to California from somewhere else, but who have lived here all or nearly all their lives. Michelle Chihara grew up in Berkeley, California, eighty miles from where Didion grew up in Sacramento. In “Where I am From,” Chihara tackles her complicated relationship with Didion while attempting to pull back the curtain on the Didion family’s real estate deals, the selling off of California. Chihara notes that, in Didion’s own essay, “Where I Was From,” Didion writes about these transactions as if they are passive things that happened to her family. “I wanted Didion to cop to her role in the process,” Chihara writes. But also, Didion “belongs to California, and no one in journalism or academia has given me a better language than hers.”
Perhaps my favorite essay in the collection is “Points on a Map” by Steph Cha, a native Californian who was born in Van Nuys, grew up in Encino, and lives in Los Angeles. Cha writes about the way she connects with other writers through location: “Do you know what I see when I read Joan Didion, or for that matter, Raymond Chandler, or Walter Mosley, or Michael Connelly? I see a map overlaid on my map of Los Angeles.” Cha learns that the first apartment she shared with her husband is less than four miles from the house where Didion lived “[b]etween 1966 and 1971, during the years depicted in ‘The White Album’”: “I lit up when I saw that,” Cha writes, “because when I read writers I love writing about Los Angeles, I look for our shared geographies, linking us across time; I savor these recognitions as if they might tie us together.” This is a perfect summation of what this collection of essays accomplishes. These twenty-five writers superimpose Didion’s map over their own maps, look for their connections to Didion, their “shared geographies,” the things that tie them to her. They find their ways in, and by doing so, they help us to find our own.
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at leannephillips.com.