Monday, September 9, 2013

On meeting Joan

In my last year of university I was working at the university bookshop following a weird series of events that might be described as fate by someone, unlike me, who knows whether or not they believe in fate. Joan Didion's most recent book Blue Nights was published that year. It sat on the new releases table for weeks looking at me with its sparse, powder blue cover. Everyone told me I must read The Year of Magical Thinking before Blue Nights but I've always been impatient when it comes to books. I took Blue Nights home with me and began my infatuation with Didion.

Over a year later I was in San Francisco staying in a hostel close to China Town. There was a Jack Kerouac museum down the street where I bought a Frank O'Hara book called Lunch Poems and I saw the Golden Gate Bridge and spent an evening drinking gin and tonics at Vesuvio's next to City Light Books listening to the busker outside and walking over paving stones that quoted Maya Angelou. There was something about San Fransisco that made me feel like I'd gone back a few decades and been welcomed there.

I mention this because meeting Didion for the first time in Blue Nights felt like being in San Fransisco did. It was like going somewhere I'd never been before that was new and exciting and at the same time having an overwhelming and comforting sense of déjà vu. I also mention this because Didion wrote about 1960s San Fransisco in her nihilistic way in one of her most famous essays "Slouching Towards Bethlehem".

In fact I brought this whole subject up because in Didion's collection of essays by the same title, which I bought at City Light Books with the enthusiasm of a child let loose in a candy store, there is a piece I loved called "On Self Respect". I read "On Self Respect" on my way home from San Fransisco at Auckland airport. Last week I had one of those days when it felt like there was nothing I could do right and I went back to that essay. And I felt better. And I remembered how I first met Joan and thought "lucky me". And then I came here and wrote about it.

I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is about Joan that I love so much but there's some of it in this quote, from a faded library worn copy of Run River: 
"... she reflected admiringly upon people in movies - and it was not only people in movies - who when they could not talk to each other said goodbye, had renunciations, made decisions: started fresh, apparently lobotomized. If there was one thing she and Everett and Ryder all had in common it was that none of their decisions ever came to much; they seemed afflicted with memory." Joan Didion, Run River