I do not recommend that writers read Joan Didion’s latest book, South and West, unless they have a very strong ego. Subtitled From a Notebook, South is a published version of Didion’s notes that she compiled during a 1970s trip to southern states. She never shaped the notes into an essay or a collection, and she undoubtedly never intended her notes to be published.
And here’s where the potential bruised ego comes in for writers who read this book: Joan Didion’s goddamned notes are more compelling, more finely wrought, than most writers’ finished products. Didion could have published this book in the 1970s as-is without any “notebook” caveats and it would have been received as a minimalist triumph. Why, even this passage, in which Didion explains how she failed in her duties as a reporter during the trip, is better written than most journalism:
The way in which all the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semi-Finals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.
That single brick of a paragraph contains so much gold. That “not far from where we were, wherever we were” is a perfect distillation of Didion’s state of mind as she explored the South, that purposeful aimlessness, that aggressive need to be lost. Her claims that she “was underwater in some real sense” create a dissonance in the reader’s brain. It’s a more ingenious adaptation of a misused “literally.” Consciously, the reader understands that Didion wasn’t literally drowning in the South, but that image of her struggling to breathe as the humid air pressed down on her is indelible in a reader’s mind.
Though Didion’s trip to the South took place almost a half-century ago, the land that she describes in South is very similar to the South of 2017. The racism, sexism, and wounded national pride she reports is immediately recognizable. You almost expect Didion to refer to the white nationalist riots at Charlottesville somewhere in the book, so fresh are the injuries that she relays.
Didion characterizes the South as a defeated nation — one that never recovered from its loss. Her South is occupied territory, crawling with citizens who cautiously eye any Yankees who wander into view. They distrust anyone who is not a Southerner, and the genteel attitude that Didion repeatedly encounters can sometimes barely cover over the stench of loathing just beneath the surface.
Didion talks to a man who is convinced that the South will rise again. His plan for ascendancy is still very much the South’s game plan today:
”There is and must be,” he said, “a continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry, and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly…”
Even now, politicians in Southern states continue to keep wages artificially low, battle against regulation, and fight to eliminate corporate taxes. They swear that the new Southern manufacturing boom is right around the corner. Fifty years later, they still don’t realize that making themselves as cheap as possible isn’t the way to encourage value. So they keep slashing regulations and quelling attempts to raise the minimum wage, positive that some benevolent corporation will finally take notice and rain good jobs down on the land, when in fact all they’re doing is making the next Deepwater Horizon disaster an inevitability.
Despite the beauty of Didion’s phrasing and the acuteness of her observations, the reader understands with every page that South is a failed book. In a pique of fandom, Didion tries mightily to find William Faulkner’s grave, but she eventually abandons the quest. She thinks of questions she should have asked interviewees long after the interviews are over. She feels her brain slowing down in the heat.
And ultimately, she can’t hide her loathing of the South:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
In the realm of incomplete works by great authors, South and West is a paragon. It’s much better crafted than The Original of Laura. It’s a more satisfying reading experience than The Pale King. But it doesn’t offer much by way of insight into Didion’s writing process. Fans trying to crack open her head and peer inside will come away unhappy with — even defeated by — her pellucid prose and inscrutable inspirations.
Didion is such a fine writer that she may as well be considered a magician. Even when she fails to completely tame a subject, she still somehow comes out on top. She wasn’t able to pare the hugeness of the Southern tragedy into a coherent book, but she still managed to survey a broken land and steal its secrets. She still stared into America’s abyss and came away with enough vision to tell us exactly what she saw.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant