Tag Archives: The Point

Joan Didion and the Nature of Narrative

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The title of the new Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, can apply to any writer’s body of work: under scrutiny, does it hold? Now that Didion has published her final book, critics have started assessing her extensive body of work. At The Point, Paul Gleason takes his own look at Didion’s legacy, connecting her biography with her writerly interests. What Gleason sees is the realization of Didion’s own literary maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Readers often expect journalists and cultural critics to help clarify the stories of our time, but as Didion tackled culture and politics through the decades, she was also examining the unsettling possibility that there was no grand narrative, only a human need to make sense of disorder. Didion told herself many stories in order to live, about her family’s place in the mythic West, about America and the 1960s, about her relationships, and she also tore those stories down. To me, as a longtime fan of Didion’s nonfiction, it seems she told stories that were not only about her subjects or her struggles — she told stories that were about stories, about the ways human beings construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, chaotic nature of existence. Didion might, as Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Bookforum, have been “out of her intellectual range” when it came to large subjects like Feminism, but as a storyteller, Didion’s legacy has much to do with narrative itself and why we want answers, through-lines and resolution, and how we delude ourselves.

In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.

Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”

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A Life Measured in Swipe-Rights

Graffiti on the sidewalk reading "i saw you on tinder"
Image by liborious (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Andrew Kay found himself on the dating market and the academic job market simultaneously, and spoiler alert: they’re deeply analogous, and it turns out that living both the personal and professional parts of your life as one massive interview is not easy, or pleasant. He takes us through the whole stressful, performative, soul-deadening process in The Point magazine — the piece is long, but the candor makes it compelling.

You craft a digital avatar of yourself and send it out into the virtual world, then spend the ensuing months and years honing and revising it; you rehearse behind closed doors again and again, giving yourself forcible makeovers until your behavior, your tics—I almost said your inner being, though this last remains up in the air, a thing you gradually learn not to think about—correspond with the simulacrum. On OkCupid and Tinder, I was “a chill, big-hearted guy,” family-centered, mild-mannered, humorously self-deprecating. In my cover letter I was a young scholar and teacher of luminous promise—bold, theoretically omnivorous, a winner of fellowships and awards, an author of multiple articles with a first book in the pipeline and a second germinating. The process is exhausting: neither in bathroom nor bedroom are you free from it, devouring dating profiles on the toilet, reaching for your cell phone when you accidentally wake at 3 a.m., checking the jobs Wiki from the parking lot outside the gym. At last you crawl, parched and ragged, to the reservoirs of intimate encounter, thinking here at last you can abandon the pretension and performance, here forget and enjoy yourself—only to learn that the performance and assessment have merely begun.

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The Boundless Possibility and Boundless Boredom of the Open Road

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr, via Unsplash

The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.

After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.

These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.

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