As far as I'm concerned, any Joan Didion book is worth picking up. But as much as I admire Didion and have loved many of her books, I couldn't understand the motivation behind the release of the latest collection of her non-fiction essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, unless it were simply commercial.
This slim hardback takes the reader from 1968 (Didion's critique of American newspapers; her impressions of a group of problem gamblers; and a visit to a robotic Nancy Reagan) to 2000 (an almost academic dissection of Martha Stewart's distinctive brand of luxurious homemaking). There is no particular unifying element here, except for Didion's surgical eye.
A 1970s Didion gazes from the cover, wrapped in what appears to be a shawl, cigarette aloft, an empty plate sitting on the table in front of her. She is as cool and unbothered as usual and the book is a stylish object, one you might leave lying around on your coffee table because it looks good and is nice to dip into.
But why republish these 12 essays, and why now? The most recent piece published in this collection is more than 20 years old, and as astute as Didion's observations of Martha Stewart are, they feel a little stale. I mean, Martha Stewart – who cares, really? Since 2000, Didion has released themed essay collections on politics, California history and 9/11, and two profoundly moving books about grief and failing to find meaning following loss – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), after her husband's death, and Blue Nights (2011) about her daughter's death. In both those books Didion, raw with sorrow and curdled with anger, exposes herself without vanity. They are hurried, anxious reads, taut with emotion and impact.
In Let Me Tell You What I Mean, the writing is as tart and economical as you would expect from Didion but the stakes are low. She doesn't get into one top university but is accepted by another. She is disappointed that Ernest Hemingway's wife releases his last novel posthumously. She tries to write short stories but isn't great at it. People are self-destructive, they waste their time and hers. Life rolls on.
Joan Didion is 86, at this point she owes us nothing. But the release of a new book does raise expectations. How much more wonderful it would be to regard the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements through her unflinching eyes. Or even Free Britney, for that matter. What does she make of pandemic isolation? Or Donald Trump and the rise of the furious right-winger?
Perhaps this book is meant to serve as a sort of amuse-bouche, and we are about to be treated to some fresh Didion material. Please let that be so, because if this were to be the last word from her, it would be a disappointing one.
Reviewed by Eleanor Black
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Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (4th Estate, $33)