On A Book of Common Prayer

“She died, hopeful.”

That revelation might be unwelcome in a review were the words not pulled directly from the first page of the book. Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer begins at the end. Didion has a peculiar skill for diffusing the normal pull of a plot by revealing its destination immediately. It’s not unusual for a writer to do just that, but a novelist has numerous options: start at the beginning, the end, any number of places in the middle, span decades, minutes, abandon time entirely. A journalist does not, and Didion is a journalist.

At least I read her that way.

My first encounter with Joan Didion was in Slouching Toward Bethlehem; later her anthology of nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. Her shorter essays are among my favorites – "On Self Respect” or “On Keeping a Notebook” – but she is best know by far for her longer essays which are, explicitly or otherwise, works of journalism. In “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” she witnesses the cultural decay of the Haight-Ashbury when the optimism left but the hippies remained. The White Album chronicles the chaos of radicalism and bankruptcy that filled that void. Salvador, a stricken city in the clutches of a violent counter-revolution. Miami, an affluent city changing rapidly. WILL THE LAST AMERICAN TO LEAVE MIAMI PLEASE BRING THE FLAG!

Didion is a journalist in a way we rarely think of them. We think of journalists as reporters, those who collect tidbits and splash them across the ticker as they happen. She is the sort that takes a thing we already know and digs around it to help us understand why we ever came know it in the first place.

“Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to ‘history’ and another to ‘complications,’ [...] she imagined herself capable of shedding that baggage and came to Boca Grande, a tourist. Una turista. So she said. In fact she came here less a tourist than a sojourner but she did not make that distinction.

She made not enough distinctions.

She dreamed her life.

She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story.”

So reads the first page of A Book of Common Prayer. Didion gives us this summary because we know these things already. Marriages break up and break up again. Reconciliations happen. They often aren’t what we want them to be. Death is hard to face. Death happens. Children leave. We think we can forget things. We usually can’t.

Didion doesn’t explain how these things come to be, so much as she lays them out for us. Her job is less to tell the story than to curate a collection of snapshots, recollections, and conversations and arrange them in such a way that we make sense of them (“I will be her witness”). There are things we can control and things we can’t. Normal people are swept up and small things turn out to be much larger. Didion is a reporter and tells a story – incomplete, confused, jumbled – the way that an observer would. In the end, A Book of Common Prayer is not about anyone or anything in particular. It’s about making order of things; observing contradictions and sorting through confusion. Some things never quite make sense.

(also right here.)