The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion
(St. Martin’s Press, August 2015)
A colleague of mine once described Joan Didion’s work as “pretty straightforward.” But, as Tracy Daugherty shows in The Last Love Song, his encyclopedic biography of the prolific, much-studied novelist and journalist, Didion’s work is anything but “straightforward.” In fact, Daugherty spends nearly 800 pages proving quite the opposite. The Last Love Song is an intense examination of Didion’s carefully controlled work, ultimately mapping her own personal narrative against the nation’s as it moved through a period that included, among other things, the second World War, the Beats and Haight-Ashbury, a president-cum-crook, the turn of a century, and the rise and fall of the World Trade Center towers. By connecting these parallel narratives—Didion’s own life with the life of the country at large—Daugherty successfully illustrates the intricate way Didion has both responded to and also helped create the culture about which she writes.
In the introduction, Daugherty establishes his vision for this book: “Early in my career I had decided there was no point to literary biography if it did not seek to grasp what was said, and why, in a certain time.” Daugherty achieves this in The Last Love Song by opening many chapters with seemingly unrelated details (a very Didion-esque move). For instance, one chapter begins in all caps: “CAUTION: CONSTANT LAND MOVEMENT.” These snippets help establish historical context—in this case, we learn farther down the page that this refers to “the history of Southern California.” Daugherty is particularly concerned with creating a sense of the American West, a mythologized idea that Didion, herself a daughter of California, comes to symbolize.
But why the West? California? Joan Didion? Because, as Daugherty says, “The inescapable truth was this: Los Angeles was the 20th-century American city, the first city whose physical layout and social order owed its patterning entirely to a real estate- and petroleum-based economy.” And if you’re looking for a writer through which to examine the West and its ethos, Didion is that writer.
Didion was herself a pioneer, at the vanguard of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and ’70s, along with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson. But she is also the descendant of pioneers; she was born and raised in California, the edge of the American frontier. In many ways her family and her own personal story reflect the West—its sense of endless possibility, both in terms of wide open spaces and an upward economic mobility, which inevitably leads to disappointment. Daugherty sees this sensibility in Didion’s writing, noting her persistent interest in her subjects’ “restlessness for a happier life, and their disappointment: pale echoes of the pioneer trope.”
This leads Daugherty to draw a deeper connection. “The emphasis, then, in both [Didion’s] nonfiction and fiction rests not on the longed-for story—which can never be told fully—but on the longing itself.” For her, this is the West: the desire for something greater without ever arriving.
Yet, part of what makes Didion such an impressive observer of her time, and unlike so many other Westerners, is her ability to, as she says, “extricate the reality of the past from the myth of Manifest Destiny.” What catches her attention, what she chooses to see, is nearly as important as what she chooses to ignore. Daugherty, a careful and smart close reader, shows how this takes shape in Didion’s writing, even at the sentence-level structure. “Elision,” he writes, “first encountered in the pioneers’ testimonies, would become one of Didion’s early signatures. It would even extend to her grammar: Often, she’d withhold a subject or verb until the end of a sentence, keeping the reader in suspense, suggesting that meaning—or resolving conflicting details—was not the point so much as worrying the music and rhythm of memory.”
Fittingly, this sense of omitting certain details becomes a characteristic of The Last Love Song as Didion chose not to participate in the project. Still, Daugherty has managed to portray a magnificent life by scouring her work, interviewing distant friends and old colleagues (those who would agree to an interview), and filling in the blank spaces by researching public records. But the genius of the biography comes from Daugherty’s ability to uncover in these sources a narrative that is compulsively readable. Which is to say that this biography is compelling because Didion herself is compelling, her life a collection of all of the things that make for a good story: struggle, redemption, mystery, love, and profound loss. And we end with the sense that even this life, this book, all of the tumultuousness of the 20th century isn’t quite the point, but rather that, as Daugherty says, “What holds it together is the longing for story.”
JILL DEHNERT is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.