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Didion As Diva
Didion.JPG
 

BY BILL HAYES | "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask."

What makes Didion a diva? I ask instead.  In lieu, that is, of the classic opening from Joan Didion's 1970 novel "Play It As It Lays," the kind of tone-setting, attention-getting line with which all of her books begin.

I am thinking of early Didion in particular: the Pulp Fiction Didion of "Run River" and of the screenplay for "Panic in Needle Park" (as opposed to the woman responsible for Redford and Pfeiffer's film "Up Close and Personal"). The New Journalism Didion who drank "gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin" to finish "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and who included in "The White Album" a document from her own report as a psychiatric patient, as evidence of a "not inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." The Lady Didion in the jacket photo for "A Book of Common Prayer," with a gardenia in her hair (borrowed from Billie Holiday), or the Undercover Didion photographed for "Salvador," hidden behind big, black sunglasses (as if lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis).

But I am also thinking of the Didion who reemerged last year with "The Last Thing He Wanted." "Her first novel in 12 years!" the promotional ads proclaimed, suggesting a triumph of Didionesque resolve over Didionesque ennui. The Diva Didion who came back on top (like Judy at Carnegie Hall or Callas at the Met) with a bestseller, due, in no small part, to her loyal gay following.

What makes Didion a diva? Why do gay men worship her? I send my questions out upon the Web and pour myself a gin-and-hot water.

"Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me."

The response is fierce and immediate.

"She is certainly the Queen of Irredeemable Depression," a friend e-mails, by way of agreement, from England. "Makes you wanna take pills and draw the blinds and put a super-size baggie over your head." He further posits that Didion is such a formidable presence in her books, she is scary. "I think diva worshippers like to feel a bit terror-struck by the object/subject of their idolatry."

"You are absolutely right," another replies. "She ought to be up there with other brittle, unhappy, brilliant homo icons," he says, offering other literary models -- Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf -- but no cogent argument for Didion's nomination.

Is it because her fictional heroines, straight women like herself, are so helplessly obsessed, as are many gay men, with archetypically masculine men? I ask in return.

"No, no, that's too obvious. It's much sicker than that."

A straight woman asks me to define "diva." After consulting some high-intellectual "queer theory" texts and drawing upon the Judy Garland model, I tell her a diva is an indestructible wreck. She is larger-than-life, the complete antithesis of living in the closet: in possession of outsized talents, operatic emotions, man-sized appetites. She is oversexed. Yet the diva is all too human: a frequent victim of good drugs, bad taste and indifferent men. The closet's perspective is critical: The diva lifts us from it. She is an icon through whom gay men can live vicariously, projecting upon her their own extravagant desires and revenge fantasies.

While the opera diva's instrument is her throat (which must be protected at all costs, as Wayne Koestenbaum has written with such dazzling lyrical and clinical fervor), the literary diva's voice emits from myriad observations mercilessly scavenged. Anything seen, heard, touched or smelled is material for her writing. She is as much a performer as the mezzo soprano, if not the ultimate solo artist. The opera diva's performance is immediate -- and immediately gratifying -- but the literary diva must create in solitude, then wait many agonizing months, sometimes years, for her voice to reach its audience through publication. This time lag places her at still greater remove from her followers, which only adds to her mystery.

Even after explaining all this for the benefit of my straight friend, I feel that I haven't quite captured the diva in all her allure and complexity. Cheating, I finally say, "It's like spotting another homosexual: It's something you just know."

Not all gay men share my obsession. "Her writing sounds like RuPaul channeling Tennessee Williams," someone snipes, proceeding to trash not only Didion but her devotees. "I think it's just an effete crowd who read her."

"You should explore why you consider Didion a diva," a good friend finally advises, "and whether or not that rank has a positive valence for you."

"Well, of course," I reply snootily. "Naturally. Needless to say." All of my writing, like Didion's, leads in one way or another back to myself.

"This is a story about love and death in the golden land."

My interest in Didion started, just as all her early books do, in California. Santa Clara, to be precise (that's south of Sacramento, of which she is famously a native daughter, fifth generation, and north of Los Angeles, with which she is verifiably obsessed). Santa Clara University, as opposed to Berkeley, which Didion attended, as did several of her characters, and where I was dying to go but never had the grades to get in. The year was 1980. I don't recall the exact specifics of first reading Didion, but am proud to report that it was at the beginning, with "Run River," her first book, "An Explosive Novel of a Strange Marriage," published in 1963.

It was on the syllabus of a women's literature course, along with "Mrs. Dalloway," "The House of Mirth," "The Awakening," "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing." I recollect the titles, but not the connecting through-line.

"Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it."

I remember that potboiler beginning; the precise moment of the gunshot; and the characters' movie-script names. But more than all of that, I remember that second sentence, ridiculously long and digressive, carried along by pure diva attitude -- ironic, watchful, imperturbable, knowing. I wanted that attitude. I wanted that voice. I wanted to wind that diamond watch.

I embraced Didion long before I embraced being gay. The fascination had to do with the search for my own queer self, and vice versa, which I have yet to understand completely. Perhaps now is the moment to confess that I was equally obsessed with other female artists -- rival divas, one might say -- all of whom never failed to lift me, if only temporarily, and held sway over my imagination for years. I was in love with Joni Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Patti Smith and Georgia O'Keeffe, disparate artists who worked either in a confessional mode (my favorite kind) or with a graphic confrontational style. I had this very real sense that each was communicating directly to me. (At its most extreme, I thought I could hear my name called out in two of Mitchell's albums, through some weird audio hallucination that I can no longer re-create.) I saw them as restless, depressed, brave, hopelessly romantic loners: much as I saw myself. And I thought of them as terribly honest, which I could not be.

"Havana vanities come to dust in Miami."

True Didionphiles know that she is meant to be read aloud. The opening line from "Miami" may be the best single example of this: a sentence in love with itself. (Some critics say the same of entire Didion books.) The line is a masterpiece of style over content. It exists to be said.

My college friend David, a Bronx native at Santa Clara -- a theater major at a Jesuit university that had no drama department to speak of -- first taught me the pleasures of this. We used to get high and pull out Didion books for a reading. Our favorite was "A Book of Common Prayer," with David assuming the role of Grace Strasser-Mendana, nee Tabor, "a student of delusion."

"I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method," he might begin, reciting a Didionism that appears with little variation in virtually every novel and essay, "who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos ..."

"I am interested for example in learning that such a 'personality' trait as fear of the dark exists irrelative to patterns of child-rearing," David would declaim, circling the dorm room, his book held open in one hand, instructing me, as Grace does in the novel.

A quiet aside: "Fear of the dark can be synthesized in the laboratory."

An uncomfortable pause: "For the record, Charlotte was afraid of the dark."

A long drag on his Benson & Hedges, head thrown back, a gesture that demanded holding your breath. Then, while exhaling smoke : "Give me the molecular structure of the protein which defined Charlotte Douglas!"

At which point, ecstatic and stoned, we would collapse in laughter.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

Throughout college, I was deeply in the closet (a phrase that, to this day, conjures up pleasant images of hiding safely behind racks of beautiful clothes -- fabrics and furs brushing against my face). As it happens, as I always suspected but did not learn until several years later, David was, too. Looking back, it seems very sad, though all too typical, that we lived across the hall from one another, considered each other best friends, yet remained too ashamed ever to be honest with one another. Of course, I now recognize the similar patterns we followed -- the girlfriends with whom we never had sex, for instance, or the twin tendencies to drown our desires in pot, vodka, Quaaludes, whatever we could get our hands on -- and the clues we were giving each other, our mutual attractions and obsessions. Our shared love of Didion was one of these.

Sure, it could have been an accident of timing: We both discovered Didion in a course that we took together, by chance, at a time when we were both pretty messed up. But I believe that something more was at work.

Didion's heroines, like the diva herself, are expert at passing themselves off as one thing -- often as one highly polished thing -- when they are really another. This art of passing -- of improvising the stories by which we live in a straight world -- is perfected at a young age by gays and lesbians. It gives us the illusion of both passivity and control; the impression of both participating in life -- of reluctantly playing by the rules, like Maria in "Play It As It Lays" -- and remotely witnessing it, like Grace in "Common Prayer."

Passing has everything to do with language; with running a life enclosed by quotation marks; and with "imposing a narrative line upon disparate images." Therefore, I could tell myself at the time: I may have sex with the man I met at the pool, but I "love" my "girlfriend." I take the train to San Francisco to see a play, but end up "by chance" in the Castro. The graffiti scrawled on my dorm room door that says "faggot!" is a "mistake," meant for someone else.

Didion seems to know instinctively that we pay a price for our impersonations. We may even be a little too good at blending in, like Elena in "The Last Thing He Wanted," who is obliviously "traveling on a passport not her own to a place she had no previous intention of going." Didion understands this, recognizes it as a strength to be admired, and realizes that, like exposure to the sun, year after year, it causes long-term damage. "Elena's apparently impenetrable performances in the various roles assigned to her were achieved (I see now) only with considerable effort and at considerable cost."

This damage is rarely something we see in ourselves. What I recall most vividly about coming out to my family in 1984 was the genuine surprise I felt that everyone was so surprised -- no, profoundly shocked -- to learn I was gay. To realize that I had been that successful at faking it, when I thought my purse had been open since I was a little boy, was as unsettling as the dismay my revelation caused.

"It is hard now to call up the particular luridity of 1984."

Coming out is the quintessential reinvention of gay life. And although there is rarely a gay character in a Didion book -- the only instances I recall are typical stock characters, "faggots" who accompany movie-star Mariah and, in the new novel, an obnoxious, drunk queen who is straight out of "The Boys In the Band" -- Didion has a great feel for the melodrama of such radical revisions in one's narrative. The heroines of her novels always pull through, in some fashion (in fact, often while wearing white linen and always with cinematic flair), assuming heretofore unknown extremes of masculinity and femininity. My favorite instance of this is near the end of "Common Prayer": A bomb goes off when Charlotte is in the bathroom changing her Tampax. Regardless, she goes charging out, saves three people, shouting "Goddamn you all," while bleeding all over the floor. She is a menstruating diva with balls.

And then there's Elena, who first comes out on Academy Awards night (the perfect camp setting for diva-worshippers, straight out of "All About Eve"!). Sitting at a table, she suddenly declares, "I can't fake this anymore," leaves her rich husband in California, and reinvents herself as a political reporter for the Washington Post.

These are "crucible events," as the narrator (Didion herself) says in "The Last Thing He Wanted." "Revelations of character." And "the character they reveal is that of a survivor." In other words, an indestructible wreck.

Queer theorists predict that divas (or, dive, to be grammatically correct) are on their way out, a vanishing species, as gay men become more and more assimilated into the mainstream. Can the diva exist if there is no closet from which to lift us? At 35, I tend not to be so optimistic about our political progress and the closet's dismantling, nor so rigid in my definition of the diva's role. Didion's survivors inspire me to new heights, in entirely new situations, ones I never could have imagined when we first met back in 1980, such as the AIDS plague. At a time of love and death, of operatic emotions, it is no surprise that Didion continues to find her most rapt audience among gay men.

"Some real things have happened lately."

I saw Didion. She was on stage, not performing exactly, but being interviewed (a kind of performance art in itself) about her new novel. When Didion walked out, it was exactly as I pictured it. Dressed in a smart black shift and black pumps, tiny, flat-chested, her body curved in upon itself, as if her bones were orchid stems. Eyes cast down to avoid the lights. She carried an elegant black handbag: a perfect Didion detail. I imagined that it contained an amulet from each of her books: a bottle of Joy, "The Costliest Perfume in the World," from "Run River"; a prescription for Dexedrine from "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"; the credit card with which she purchased Linda Kasabian's dress in "The White Album"; Elena's falsified passport from "The Last Thing He Wanted"; the .38 revolver with which Everett killed Ryder and then himself (and who knows who else?). Didion placed the black handbag on the floor, her eyeglasses atop the table.

I was seated three rows from the back of the house, so she appeared slightly out of focus, a not inaccurate description of the woman herself. Her voice was slurred. Her whole body never quite settled in one position or upon a definite course of action. Gestures started were not carried through. Speaking distractedly, Didion would reach for her eyeglasses, touch them momentarily, hover above them, tap the frames again, then pull her hand neatly back into her lap. She threatened to evaporate before my eyes.

It was in these imprecise gestures, this languid body language and her inarticulate speech, that I discovered an irreducible truth: the literary diva exists only on the page. In person, this diva is unremarkable, forgetful of her lines, absent of herself. She is the antithesis of the legendary showbiz or opera divas, like Monroe or Callas or Garland, who had to be seen in the flesh or on-screen to be experienced, and who are reduced to ordinary humanity with the written word.

After the lecture, I waited on line to have a book signed and my theory was proved. At the end of a 15-minute wait sat a tiny, sweet, frail woman. She was wearing a heavy coat and scrunched over in the chair. I thought of shaking her hand, but it appeared breakable. Anyway, she didn't offer it.

"Oh, hello," Didion said, as if she had just returned from someplace and found me standing there. I wanted to ask her a complicated question about gay men and Maria and Charlotte and Lily and Elena and her other heroines, and about Didion's ascension to divadom, but I choked. The line was pushing up against my back. I simply said, "Thank you." I told her that I'd brought her a gift and placed it in her hand.

She immediately asked, "What is it?" like a young girl, too inquisitive even to wait to open it (or, like Charlotte, fearing a letter bomb).

I did not ask her to sign the new novel, but my favorite Didion instead. I opened it to the first page of "A Book of Common Prayer," first edition.

"Here?" she asked. "You want it here?"

"Yes," I said, "here," and pointed to a spot right above the opening line, so that it would read, for the rest of my life and beyond:

Joan Didion
"I will be her witness."

 Orginally published on Salon.com