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Tracy Daugherty Joan Didion Essays

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

by Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin’s, 728 pp., $35.00

We are uneasy about a story until we know who is telling it.

—Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer

It is rare to find a biographer so temperamentally, intellectually, and even stylistically matched with his subject as Tracy Daugherty, author of well-received biographies of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, is matched with Joan Didion; but it is perhaps less of a surprise if we consider that Daugherty is himself a writer whose work shares with Didion’s classic essays (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968; The White Album, 1979; Where I Was From, 2003) a brooding sense of the valedictory and the elegiac, crushing banality and heartrending loss in American life. To Daugherty, born in 1955, Didion has long been a visionary, “a powerful voice for my generation.” So identifying with his subject, who has suffered personal, familial losses in recent years, as well as a general disillusionment with American politics, the biographer inevitably becomes “an elegist, writing lamentations”; Didion’s memoir Blue Nights (2011), a meditation upon motherhood and aging as well as an elegy for Didion’s daughter Quintana, who died at the age of thirty-nine in 2005, is “not just a harrowing lullaby but our generation’s last love song.”

Chronological in its basic structure, The Last Love Song is not a conventional biography so much as a life of the artist rendered in biographical mode: we pick up crucial facts, so to speak, on the run, as we might in a novel (for instance, in Didion’s debut novel Run River, 1963), in the midst of other bits of information: “By 1934, the year of Didion’s birth, the levees [on the Sacramento River] had significantly reduced flooding.” We learn that Didion’s first, crucial reader was her mother, Eduene, a former Sacramento librarian descended from a Presbyterian minister and his wife who followed the Donner-Reed party west but decided to split from the doomed group in Nevada in 1846. An acquaintance of the family tells Daugherty that the Didions and their extended families “were part of Sacramento’s landed gentry…families who called themselves agriculturalists, farmers, ranchers, progressives, but they were the owners, not the ones who got their hands dirty.” With a novelist’s empathy Daugherty notes:

For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…. A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.

Many passages in The Last Love Song read with the fluency of fiction, and the particular intimacy of Didion’s fiction, as if by a sort of osmosis the subject has taken over the narrative, as a passenger in a speeding vehicle may take over the wheel. We feel that we are reading about Didion in precisely Didion’s terms:

In considering—and not quite hitting—the real story…

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Daugherty has scoured the record with a hound dog’s zeal. The most interesting material he turns up deals with Didion’s childhood — perhaps because this is the phase of her life she has written the least about. We see a quietly impassioned young Didion in the midst of a proud, rather morose fifth-generation California family. As a girl, she was captivated by the story of the Donner party — according to Daugherty, this was the beginning of her fascination with lurid violence as a key to the American temperament. As soon as she could, she went to New York and got a job at Vogue, where a demanding editor made her redraft 50-word captions for glossy pictures of furniture and real estate over and over again — rigorous training for writing commanding sentences.

Didion married the writer John Gregory Dunne when she was 29 years old — a marriage that, according to Daugherty, started off as pragmatic but became a true creative partnership. Dunne was bearish, openhearted, ambitious, a perfect foil for Didion’s watchful, self-contained temperament. He bolstered her and, it seems, never questioned her desire to be on the move and imprint herself on the culture. Together, they traveled to Hawaii and moved between California and New York, wrote screenplays, became Hollywood fixtures and raised a child, Quintana Roo. We get little insight into the workings of this marriage, however. Daugherty is half reproachful (how enviable their life was!), half maudlin as he anticipates the deaths of Didion’s husband and daughter, the subjects of her recent memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights.” The writing gets particularly soggy when he discusses Quintana, whom he sentimentalizes as both the victim of her parents’ self-involvement and preternaturally insightful.

In the absence of new information, you hope the book will take flight as a work of penetrating criticism. But as Didion ­establishes herself in her marriage and career, as her politics shift from primly conservative to warily liberal, Daugherty’s methods become clearer. He has carefully culled her autobiographical essays and ­rearranged all the facts they contain in proper order, giving the book a feeling of slavish stenography. Furthermore, he has allowed himself to fall into the most dangerous trap of all when writing about Didion: He mimics her tone. He repeats key phrases as refrains, he splices together incongruous scenes, he ends sections on downbeat prose couplets, meant to fill us with feelings of doom.

Almost inadvertently, Daugherty’s depressingly ersatz Didion helps us locate the charge and limitations in her writing: her lack of introspection, her narrowness and aridity. On the other hand, Daugherty’s abundance of irrelevant detail draws our attention to Didion’s miraculous gift for selection (recall the free pink champagne untouched by an underage pregnant bride in “Marrying Absurd,” her essay on Las Vegas weddings in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”).

Daugherty clearly admires Didion, and claims her as one of the most forceful and original American writers, but I began to feel hostile toward “The Last Love Song.” I think this came from the sense that there is something essentially hostile about the act of trying to write a biography of a writer like Didion. She offers us a very special kind of intimacy: a seat behind her dark glasses as she takes perfect aim at her subjects. And yet she preserves a high regard for information that lies outside the boundaries of her scrutiny. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she describes discovering that her husband had made changes to a document on his computer the day he died. She desperately wonders what it was — but, she writes, “what it was he added or amended and saved at 1:08 p.m. that afternoon I have no way of knowing.” It’s such a typical Didion statement, allowing for the weight of mystery and the feelings of helplessness it inspires to sit there on the page, vibrating. Next to her severity with unknowable truths, Daugherty’s investigations seem intrusive, even naïve.

As Daugherty’s overheated book sent me racing back to the cool relief of Didion’s prose, I was struck by a fundamental and counterintuitive generosity in her work. What Didion preserves of herself is her quick reactivity, her canny collection of images, her scraps of memories — all this translated into the most rigorously clear language. Style is how she makes herself available to us: by allowing us to borrow her extraordinary vision, by communicating it in an American speech that is really a melody — a sturdy and beautiful folk song. She sings to us — songs of warning, songs of political deception, songs of mourning. These are the songs of herself. Why demand something more?

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A Biography of Joan Didion

By Tracy Daugherty

Illustrated. 728 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $35.