Darling Didion: On Tracy Daugherty’s THE LAST LOVE SONG

Article by annalia

Joan Didion first came to me in a Christmas package from Indiana, Pennsylvania, in the form of SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM. Emily, my birthday twin and fellow writer, said that she heard Didion was a “badass” and seemed like someone I would like. I read the preface at my kitchen table, seeming to understand. Then I got to the end, to this sentence, which continues to haunt me: “That is the one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

On paper, Didion is equal parts terrifying and inspiring—as in, who has the balls to say something like that? Especially someone who went on to gain the reputation as a voice of a generation? More than that, is it true? And if it’s not, if in fact your writing is always protecting someone—be it yourself or your subject, are you not doing enough?

Then, of course, there’s this, the confession, prophecy, and characterization many a Didion devotee will recognize: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” What can I say? Like most everyone who has ever adored Didion, I was captured by her authority and restless quest for truth.

BETHLEHEM led to THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and BLUE NIGHTS. Between those three books,  I thought I knew everything there was to know about Joan Didion. After all, I had her most telling stories, the ones she told herself about where she’s “from” and the loss of the two most beloved figures in her world—and in her own words, no less!    

What I forgot about was context. With THE LAST LOVE SONG, the first-ever biography of our tiny, cat-eyed, California-loving queen, Tracy Daugherty adds another dimension to Didion the icon. Take, for example, Didion’s childhood home: “The most striking feature of the Didions’ 1923 house was its massive carport….[They] had a large lot, elevated in case of floods, and the house (boxy, with thin windows blocking more light than they let in) sat well away from the street.” In other words, Didion’s family was wealthy, a factor I had never considered before but is undeniable now that I’ve seen the evidence. Daughtery continues: “...the Didions, now with a second child, Jim, born in December 1939, almost doubled their square footage with the move, and got a five-space garage in the bargain.”

However, Daugherty makes it clear in his preface that THE LAST LOVE SONG is not a tabloid tell-all. “There is the biographer who promises explanations by threatening to reveal a subject’s secrets, who promises to dish,” he writes. “I am not that biographer. Nor will I live and die by psychological theories.” Unlike me, “when presented with the private correspondence, diaries, journals, or rough drafts of a writer, [Daugherty remains] skeptical of content, attentive instead to presentation.” He argues that even these “personal” interactions are a construction. Instead, Daugherty turns to Didion’s work, which “does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms.”

His thesis? “To foreground my subject’s masterpieces rather than treat them ‘as accessory to the life per se.’” He aims to “trace her intellectual development” through her writings, an ambitious goal considering Didion is both still alive and not too charmed by the prospect of preserving her life for prosterity. Daugherty relays a vignette in which Didion “refused a scholar permission to quote from her work on the ground that she didn’t want people writing about her, and even more, she didn’t want to know if people were writing about her.”

In fact, Didion “chose not to cooperate” and did not speak to Daugherty directly about THE LAST LOVE SONG, leaving him little choice but to view her through the lens of her most elevated stories, through her most crafted voice. An obstacle? Maybe in the eyes of another biographer. Daugherty, though, seems to embrace (and even to have expected) this constraint; he views the boundaries not as censorship but a comforting division between a safe, complex space and exploitive fodder.

“Above all, in studying Didion, I am fashioning a literary biography as cultural history as well as individual story,” Daugherty writes. “If this were not so, a biography of Joan Didion would only serve as prurience.” Put another way, THE LAST LOVE SONG is not only an ode to Didion but a record of the time that happened around and through her. “Just as certain memories burn brighter with age...so, too, do the pages of our contemporaries, the marks they have made of our lives, cast us more vividly as immediate circumstances vanish and the record’s uniqueness comes more to the fore.”

Didion’s story is our story, albeit a curated one—similar to the way one’s memories become more digestible when organized by a scrapbook. With THE LAST LOVE SONG, Daugherty reveals that longing is as much a part of the American tapestry as anything, be it Didion’s desire for the John Wayne version of the West, or the illusion that anywhere is ever safe.

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The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion Cover Image
ISBN: 9781250010025
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: St. Martin's Press - August 25th, 2015

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