Category: Didion, Joan

feelin’ monstrous and free (notes)

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (reread)

The most damning thing i can say about it is that it just didn’t really change this time since senior year in high school. The text felt inert in that way. i remembered reading the same language as before, and it is beautiful language, about the sepulchral metropolis, or the jungle as a dream, or the steamboat as a crawling beetle, and Kurtz’s head as an ivory ball. It’s still racist. There’s plenty of criticism about this; the only that ive read is a squib by Jane Smiley, arguing that that the novella’s misogyny and white supremacist attitudes are enough to knock it off the tier of art. We may or may not go so far, but this time around i wasnt impressed by Marlowe’s storytelling. He gets ahead of himself, like at the beginning of part 2, when out of nowhere he talks about “the girl” and describes Kurtz when he was in the middle of the river journey, or bringing up the report with “Exterminate all the Brutes!” It wasn’t effective for me this time.

Joan Didion’s SALVADOR

But speaking of HoD, this novella length work of non fiction uses a long smack of it as an epigraph. Didion’s literary reporting on the Salvadorian civil war is modeled on that book in a way; the short length sustains a fragmented and nonlinear structure. i read it in one sitting, and i dont know what was up, but i was just so distracted that i really didnt take it all in. It’d be interesting to hold this piece in relation to “The White Album,” tho. Didion’s persona with her paranoia and disorientation fits this topic and location, where the weather is always “earthquake weather,” and the who what where when and why are unstable and always changing, especially statistics.

That’s what makes the journalism “literary,” as well as a self-reflection; Didion writes about how she reports and writes:

This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer uch interested in thsi kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.


This has been my subway book. It may sound weird to plumb Gaddis’s fiction (and his daughter’s) for biographical details, but Tabbi pulls it off with careful reading and evidence from correspondence. It’s an exciting hybrid of critical biography and broader cultural commentary, that’s really exciting to read right now bc it’s so contemporary. Tabbi has some of the best thoughts on our cybernetic hypertextual internet age, and how fiction writers are still sprinting to catch up with Gaddis’s JR in capturing it, made all the more difficult bc of our literary culture’s backlash against what Wallace called “Image-Fiction” and in favor of realism. Tabbi argues effectively that it’s not illegibility that makes work like Gaddis’s “difficult,” but how they ask for readers-as-collaborators.

essay canon dispatch no. 5 — “The White Album” by Joan Didion (70’s)

image found here

Representing the seventies in the CNF essay canon is Joan Didion’s landmark piece which opens her second collection of nonfiction. i cant find it online sadly. i read it in a library copy of the 2006 collected volume of her work, the title of which is taken from this essay’s opening line. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Encountered by itself it seems like a positive and affirming slogan. Thankfully once you finish “The White Album” it takes on a more pessimistic tone. The notion becomes marked with an anxious uncertainty. How do we draw the material of life into something coherent and linear? Where do we put the beginning or the ending? And if storytelling is just a hopeless delusion of myth making, pasted over the sound and fury of a chaotic and unfeeling universe, how are we supposed to feel about the persuasive thought that our survival depends on our storytelling? Confronting our stories, our values and identities, as articles of faith can be vertiginous. But as Didion writes: “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”