Juxtaposing wicked wit with admirable irreverence, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” – representing twelve previously uncollected essays – is Joan Didion at her inimitable best. The oldest and the most recent essay contained within the book are separated by more than three decades, and yet in terms of candor and vigour alike, they are no different whatsoever. Holding forth with resounding clarity on themes ranging from the quality of newspapers to a personal letter of rejection received by Didion after she had applied to Stanford University, Didion is an absolute feast for the reader.
The first essay in the book bemoans the absence of a connect between newspapers and their consumers. “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other”, writes Didion. While papers such as the East Village Other might even be ambivalent and unperturbed about the actual facts that they carry, they uncompromisingly converse with their readers. These ordinary papers shun pretentiousness and condescension in favour of a startling simplicity that accords to them a certain endearment, from Didion’s perspective.
Another brilliant essay, and my personal favourite, is the one titled “Why I Write.” Didion makes no qualms about having palmed off the title from an earlier piece written by George Orwell. Way back in 1975, at Berkeley University, Didion gave a rousing lecture under the same title. Rending asunder all ossified and cliched notions espoused by the intellectual and armchair critic alike, on what makes a writer put pen to paper, Didion comes up with a fascinatingly refreshing take on the overarching motivations that spur the practice of writing. “In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act”, asserts Didion. In an essay on Hemingway, Didion weaves a paradoxical theme on the craft of writing, a craft that is at once inseparable and yet detached from the writer. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence, dictated, or was dictated, by a certain way of looking at the world, way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.”
The quality of profound detachment manifests itself in another essay titled “My Trip to Xanadu”, where Didion reminisces over William Randolph Hearst’s gargantuan Xanadu estate in San Simeon. Paying a visit to the palatial premises, long after the same was made over to the Government by Hearst’s offspring, with her small niece in tow, Didion is disappointed to see the metaphorical reductionism that has befallen the once awe-inspiring estate. While vestiges of splendour still remain intact, the very essence that lent a surreal mystique to the place and embellished the myths associated with it are consigned to the fickle and fading memories of history. The San Simeon that her astonished eyes viewed from the open windows of her parents’ car, and the aura emanating from its imperial presence is now only an extolled imagination. As Didion wistfully concludes, “make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.”
An exquisitely satirical essay exenterates Nancy Reagan (this was the time when her husband was the Governor of California), by recounting the elaborately artificial preparations for a scripted photoshoot. If Phillip Roth has his Everyman, Joan Didion undoubtedly IS the Everywoman. The essay on Martha Stewart drives home this fact with a lucidity that is so eviscerating that it makes the reader to literally gasp. “The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips,” articulates Didion.
Every parent ought to read the essay titled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” In an era where education symbolizes more badges of honour than an infusion of character, and where – as Michael Sandel illustrates in his brilliant book, “The Tyranny of Merit” – entry into an elitist Ivy League Institution becomes the very end, rather than a mean, Didion’s prescient essay comes across as a much needed panacea. Unable to accept a rejection letter issued by Stanford, Didion contemplates suicide while sitting on the edge of her bathtub with an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin ready for consumption. Sanity prevails in the end as she brushes away the ominous thought. Upon hearing the news that her daughter’s application to Stanford was rejected, Didion’s father just shrugs and offers her a drink. “I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances””, muses Didion. Incidentally in a piece featured on the 7th of July 2014, the “Intelligencer” magazine, informed its dumbfounded readers about a test conducted for 4 year olds by schools in New York City. The “assessment” that was administered digitally (on iPads), and going by the innocuously deceptive and turgid name of Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners(“AABL”), targeted “overachievers” whose parents were particular on their kids attending either Horace Mann or the Riverdale Country School. Defending such assessments by taking recourse to arcane and boiler plate language, Horace Mann argued that such measures were required to ensure that every applicant “for Kindergarten and First Grade at Horace Mann School has completed a standardized measure of reasoning and achievement that is psychometrically valid.” Kindergarten for heaven’s sake!
“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is worth reading for its magnificent foreword alone. Hilton Als is in his elements as he writes a measured but munificent panegyric on the craft of Joan Didion. Kaleidoscopic in its sweep, and candid in its wake, the introduction by Hilton Als gives the reader the secure belief that Joan Didion is neither for the past nor for contemporary, but for posterity. I am not sure whether the marvelous lady herself would accord her wholehearted consent for such a notion, but I can surely perceive a wicked glint in her eye, upon such a fact being conveyed to her, that signifies a piece beginning to find its contours in her extraordinary imagination.