Joan Didion in Winter

‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean’, by literature’s coolest customer

What a curious temporal trail Joan Didion paces in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, the newest collection of her magazine essays. The book collect’s six pieces from 1968, a pair from the late 1970s, another from 1989, two from the 1990s, one more circa 2000 with a “.com” appended to its title to commemorate one century’s end and usher in the next. If this curation has a code, maybe it’s that past and present aren’t as different as we like to imagine–or, less charitably, that compilation pickings are slimmer now than they once were.

A small tranche of reviews, essays, talks, introductions, and reportage, Joan Didion’s first collection since 2001’s ‘Political Fictions‘ leans harder than usual upon her favored themes: writing, interpretation, and living, and the way all three intertwine to inform a certain detached style. She composes with the graceful gradualness of a serpent, and just when you think she’s lost the thread of her argument in the accretion of anecdotes, asides, and experiences, there it suddenly is.

Joan Didion

Only midway through “Last Words”, a meditation on the posthumous publication of Ernest Hemingway’s letters and novels, do you realize that Didion is using these materials to condemn his survivors for monetizing papers the late novelist never wanted to share with the public. It isn’t until the final paragraph of “Everywoman.com,” a deep dive into Martha Stewart’s biography, that Didion literalizes the sexism that’s informed almost every slight greeting the lifestyle business titan. Meanwhile, a venomous, knives-out account of a day spent in Nancy Reagan’s agreeable company (“Pretty Nancy”) drips with derision from its very first sentence, yet the ending snaps like a sprung bear trap in a snowy forest clearing.

Sitting in on a Gambler’s Anonymous session, Didion senses a religious cult (“Getting Serenity”); wandering through a reunion of World War II veterans and their families, she anticipates the country’s growing disillusionment with international military adventures (“Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles”). An incisive forward to a memoir by a friend, the late director Tony Richardson, betrays her doubts about how well she ever knew him (“The Long-Distance Runner”). “Why I Write” and “Telling Stories” are thoughtful self-interrogations that reveal how Didion extrapolates idle observations into full fictions. While Didion is far stronger as an essayist than she is a novelist, these insights still inspired me.

If the opening piece in this collection numbers among my favorites, that may boil down to personal sentimentality. Reading about the dawn of alternative weekly newspapers–which initially published me and helped me begin to find my voice–in their twilight phase is profoundly bittersweet. The impudent, blinkered, self-obsessed esoteric directness of these papers’ voices compelled Didion, who wrote “Alicia and the Underground Press” for The Saturday Evening Press in 1968.

“I have never read anything I needed to know in an underground paper,” she admits to us. This is probably true on a pure, straight[world level, but also folly coming from a quiet, curious writer who attempts to understand the emerging counterculture threatening the straight world on that counterculture’s own stoned, bristling terms. In the Free Press, the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, and their ilk, Didion finds confession, honesty, illegality, factionism, incoherence, sarcasm, and a refreshing lack of the studied objectivity in which the larger media traffics. Those outsiders cobbled together and printed their own news, moment to moment. A little more than a half-century later, surely Didion realizes that, for better or worse, digitized equivalents are little more than a few mouse clicks away.

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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