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A literary version of the Surgeon General's warning

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Smoking_Kills.jpgJoan Didion's authorial voice is distinctive: compelling, direct, succinct . . . and not very likable.  Having now read The Year of Magical Thinking, A Book of Common Prayer and assorted book reviews in The New York Review of Books, I am confident that anything she's written is worth reading, thought-provoking and intelligent . . . but I'll never consider her a "favorite."

Her authorial voice is, I believe, at the root my withholding of affection.  She has the equivalent of "smoker's voice" for authors.  The content, style and command of language can all impress, but the sound is too thin and raspy to resonate.   

Damage not to her (metaphoric) lungs, but to her (actual) viscera may be the culprit underlying the lack of vibrancy to her authorial voice.  Didion reads like a "brain in a box": her writing is so top-heavy cerebral that "cold" and "distant" seem as inadequate descriptors as they would be of Pluto.

Ultimately, readers need a balance of cerebral and emotional in writing before an author's words-on-the-page manifest as the voice of a human with whom we can sympathize.  That transformation doesn't happen for me with Didion.  At the close of a piece by her, I always think, "Interesting," but any further interest I'll have in composition will be only the curiosity as to why I can't honestly say that I like the author.

(Image courtesy of Berkeley University Visualization CS294-10 Fall 08 wiki)   
Joan_Didion.jpg
Two major themes animate Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer: (1) the fine line between telling stories to rationalize our world and deluding ourselves, and (2) the way the personalities (and specifically the problem of ascertaining a person's motive) create ambiguities intolerable to a storyteller. 

Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator of A Book of Common Prayer, tells the story of Charlotte Amelia Douglas - a "delusional" woman (p. 1) who doesn't "make enough distinctions" (p. 1), who "dreams her life" (p. 21), whose life (dreamed or otherwise) is "unexamined" (p. 112).  Or so Grace begins the story thinking; by the end, she's not so sure:

All I know now is that when I think of Charlotte Douglas walking in the hot night wind toward the lights at the Capilla del Mar I am less and less certain that this story has been one of delusion.
p. 272. 

This doubt is courtesy of Grace's growing appreciation, as she tells Charlotte's story, of a crucial similarity between the women: their lack of success in dealing with the "personalities" in their lives.  "Personalities" in A Book of Common Prayer complicate the problem of determining motive and, therefore, the morality of action.  Grace is open about her inability to manage this ambiguity:

[As an anthropologist, I] did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grasso . . . and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.
Let me go further.
I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.
As a result, I "retired" from that field . . . and took up the amateur study of biochemistry, a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and "personality" absent. 
(p. 12.) 

Secure in her biochemistry pursuits, having reduced the ambiguity factor in her life to acceptable levels, Grace looks down on Charlotte until she realizes that Charlotte's "delusions" serve the same role as Grace's biochemistry experiments: they cut down the ambiguity.  Charlotte's sentimental, inconsistent and childish "delusions" are neither more nor less than the stories Charlotte tells herself to make sense of the world, a process that - far from indicating mental illness - is sane, rational and universal. 

Indeed, Grace's own process of storytelling is no broader or less idiosyncratic than Charlotte's.  Where Charlotte favors sentiment, Grace favors science; the inconsistencies in Charlotte's stories find their twin in the doubts and unreliabilities that Grace flags in her own; the childish flavor to Charlotte's stories is occupied, in Grace's, by seriousness. 
 
On the surface of the text - although latent in Grace's conscious narration - is the fact that Grace has mistaken Charlotte's stories for delusions because Charlotte's stories tackle head-on a thorny issue that Grace has chosen to elide: maternal response to an unlovable, criminal child. 

Charlotte's daughter Marin is a Weather Underground-style revolutionary on the lam, while Grace's son Gerardo plays Latin American coup politics like backgammon and "is lost to" her. (p. 20.)  Grace has had "to learn how to make conversation by day and avoid it in the dark, how to pretend . . . that [her] indifference to [Gerardo's] presence derives from [her] being asleep, or in pain, or hallucinating."  (p. 55.)  Grace's son, like Charlotte's daughter, is a type of terrorist, and Grace's avoidance and suppression of her crushing disappointment and dissolution of maternal love encompasses a rejection and belittling of Charlotte's response to an entirely too similar predicament.

What Grace cannot deny, however, is Charlotte's heroism: performing a tracheotomy, standing up to a military official who stole cholera vaccine that she was administering, caring for her hydrocephalic baby girl until she died in Charlotte's arms, rescuing health-care workers in the aftermath of an clinic bombing.  These actions evince Charlotte's courage and willfulness and give her death a "hopeful" (p. 1) valence: Charlotte chose the death she wanted - at the end of a gun wielded by a guerrillero stand-in for Marin (this death being Charlotte's acceptance of Marin's unconditional rejection).

Grace would never make the same choice.  Nonetheless, without entirely understanding Charlotte, Grace is constrained to respect what she recognized as an unquestionably decisive, unambiguous - non-delusional - and final response to a "personality."  Reluctantly, Grace beings to release her judgment of Charlotte, as Grace gains an understanding that her own choices are only questionably - if that - superior to Charlotte's.  As Warren, Charlotte's tyrannical and destructive first husband (one of the book's many challenging male "personalities"), writes in a letter found on his dead body, "You were both wrong but it's all the same in the end."  (p. 259.) 

Although she doesn't come out and say it, Grace comes to agree: it's all the same in the end, scientific Grace and delusional Charlotte, choosing death (Charlotte) and accepting that it wastes you (Grace, who has pancreatic cancer).  The problem of reducing ambiguity to the point where moral action is possible does not admit of a single solution, and our defensiveness in the face different approaches is redeemed by our recognition of courageous conviction when it occurs, however abhorrent the circumstances to us. 

Without knowing that she would end with this acceptance, Grace instinctively begins A Book of Common Prayer by bearing witness - "I will be her witness" (p. 1) - a form of assent, of seconding, of agreement that these women are unable to find with the personalities in their lives.  That Grace concludes the novel saying, "I have not been the witness I wanted to be" (p. 272) is a finish as hopeful for Grace as Charlotte's was for her. 

(Photo of Joan Didion from Random House)

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