The Pictures in Her Mind
I've been trying to read more fiction lately. Most of my favorite writers are my favorite writers because of their remarkable essays, so it's helpful that many of them write novels as well.
I've read all the nonfiction Joan Didion that I could get my hands on: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, Salvador, After Henry, Political Fictions, Fixed Ideas, Miami, Where I Was From. She has a remarkably magnetic style, spare and even dry. It's magnetic in the way that a musician is magnetic when she plays quietly. The audience unconsciously leans in. Her prose is whittled so close to the bone that it can be a little jarring. My mother, for example, is not a big fan (not averse, but not a fan). Didion is one of my two or three favorite writers, but I've read enough of her not to fault my mother for her opinion. Didion's fiction is very similar.
I started reading A Book of Common Prayer several days ago. The effect of her writing is hard to place in her nonfiction. She's a reporter in the traditional sense, so her very matter of fact way of presenting facts and ideas and images and quotes could be lost in the convention. In fiction, it's far more striking.
Each chapter is sort of an image. I could imagine each chapter being Didion's attempt to build a scene or an event around a polaroid she found in a shoebox in a distant relative's closet. Snippets of conversation or impressions of the trees in the window are strung together into chapters that are ten pages or barely one, but never longer than absolutely necessary.
I sometimes imagine that Didion doesn't care much for narrative. She has a bag full of trinkets and pictures that she dumps onto a table, arranges into particular order, and then leaves to her reader to decipher. But I know that's not true. It's hard to imagine not getting her meaning. That her meaning is ephemeral rather than moralistic or archetypal makes her collages yet more interesting. She turns and positions her odds and ends in meticulous order that leaves empty space enough for whatever elusive message there is to get across.
There's a school of criticism which argues that there is nothing in words but the words themselves. It's an appealing notion and I believe it more often than I don't. Summary does nothing for literature, because the words are important. An idea framed with different words cannot be precisely the same idea. But the way Didion writes insists that there be a little more than just the words. Her meaning always seems to live in the empty spaces between them.