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Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

Hell’s Angels living in a quiet suburban street, black widow spiders in the dusty rooms of an abandoned house overlooking the Mexican border, someone with a BB gun shooting a Gila monster in the eye. The kind of random scenes from a childhood Joan Didion would have fashioned into a piece of prose as smooth as silk with the occasional shard of broken glass attached just in case you needed bringing to attention. The pieces in Let Me Tell You What I Mean are not quite as great as her greatest, The White Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but they’ll do as a memorial and as an entry point for anyone wanting to explore the Didion oeuvre further. Part of the so called New Journalism posse which included Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer et al, she was a writer whose sharp insights were often shot through with a personal angst that made her best pieces tense and edgy, “I was living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described as a ‘senseless-killing neighbourhood’” or how about this for an opening line, “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut from my brain…”. Bearing this in mind the premise of some of her best non-fiction pieces could seem awkward and unsettling as she hung around the famous/infamous people (and places) she was interested in and then made observations which captured in a perfect sentence or two the truths most writers went out of their way to avoid, “…the public life of Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.” One of many great lines from The White Album, which is where I’d recommend you start if you are a Joan Didion newbie. For fully paid-up members of Team Joan, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is, of course, essential.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean– Joan Didion – publ. 4th Estate - £8.99

Steven Long

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