Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Last Night Joan Didion Saved My Life

Well, more like the other night. So on Monday some friends and I went to see Joan Didion read at the Paula Cooper gallery over on W. 21st Street. I'd never seen her read, though she is a patron saint, and figured I should go pay my respects. You had to buy The Year of Magical Thinking--first edition, signed--from 192 Books to gain admission. Since I do not have an office job, I volunteered to go early to lay out various personal effects on folding chairs. The high drama, perhaps to be expected from a certain segment of the Didion fan base--I myself go in for the cool customer making lists of what's in the linen closet and the larder--began early. A flock of probably wealthy, chunky-necklaced middle-aged ladies who clearly had been waiting all day for this, began hectoring the blazered bookstore staffer about their waiting list status. Some people play a mean game of tennis, or sing solos in the church choir—these women hector. Chairs still were being brought in; we all had to keep waiting. Then some leather-jacketed and near-balding writer--for the Voice, I think he said?--hectored the staffer about not being able to gain admission without having bought a book, walked out I swear while whipping his scarf around his neck. I was embarrassed for us all, and felt my own migraine coming on. Then Stephin Merritt showed up with a tall companion; they both seemed to be wearing tan field jackets, and Merritt, under a red baseball cap, seemed to have ginger hair. I always thought he had dark hair and sunken eyes and looked more like a crushed cigarette stub of a man--but here he looked almost as if he had been eating a lot of cheese and butter and had been taking the Irish setter to Maine a lot. I related all the high drama to one of my friends when she arrived and she gave two snaps up and said "Joan Didion!" in response. Another said: "Do you think she'll sign my book 'To a fellow Cal alum?'"

Ok, so Didion. Too-large navy blazer over a salmon colored cotton cable-knit crew. Too-large glasses--picture Carrie Donovan, only more square--and, heartbreakingly, one tortoiseshell butterfly clip holding one side of her bob off of her face. Maybe it was even plastic. All of us ladies died: "That clip!" It was not anything we would have ever worn ourselves, or expected her to wear, and I think it spoke to valuing expediency but not vanity, and some weird mix of grandmotherliness and girlishness. I'm still working out the totemic nature of that clip. But then I saw her slowly, deliberately sweep some hair away from her cheek and it was as if she still thought of herself as a beautiful woman who knew the power of her beauty.

And then she read. When she came to the bit about Dunne, after rereading A Book of Common Prayer, telling her "Don't ever tell me again that you can't write--that's my birthday present to you" she broke up. And others broke up too. Breaking up behind expensive and severe eyewear.

During the Q&A she revealed that she still isn't sure she can write. "And publishing books doesn't make it any clearer," she said. Someone asked why she loved Honolulu so much. "Well, it's simple. It's blue. And pink. And there are flowers, and it smells pretty."