TT: The Joan Didion Show

Today’s Wall Street Journal column is devoted in its entirety to my review of the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I hated it:



It surprised when Joan Didion published “The Year of Magical Thinking,” for I identified her so completely with California in the ’60s that I’d almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish–a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall–but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever. Then her daughter got sick and her husband died of a heart attack and she wrote a best-seller about it, and all at once she was back….


I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief….


Would that the stage version of “The Year of Magical Thinking” were an improvement on the book, but it isn’t. In one way it’s much worse, for it starts off with a speech that has all the subtlety of the proverbial blunt object: “This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you.” Why on earth did David Hare, the stage-savvy director, let Ms. Didion get away with so crude and undramatic a gesture? If the rest of the play doesn’t make that point, nothing will.


Nor did Mr. Hare insist that his debutante author (this is Ms. Didion’s first play) ram a theatrical spine down the back of her fugitive reflections on death and dying. As a seasoned playwright, he should have known better. “The Year of Magical Thinking” doesn’t go anywhere–it just goes and goes, inching from scene to scene, and when Ms. Didion finally gets around to telling us an hour and a half later what she learned from the loss of her husband and daughter, it turns out to be a string of portentously worded platitudes…


To read the rest, buy a copy of today’s Journal or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column, plus the rest of the paper’s extensive arts coverage.


UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. To read it, go here.

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TT: Almanac

“Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can’t be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it’s worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn’t have those if he hadn’t been like that. Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man.”


Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

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TT: The uses of second-rate art

In this week’s “Sightings” column, which appears in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I report on a visit I paid to an exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries, some of whom were influenced by him to the point of outright imitation. What did I learn from the experience? That second-rate art, however derivative, can sometimes teach you as much as first-rate art about the nature of greatness.


To find out more, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal and turn to the “Pursuits” section.

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TT: Almanac

“Concerning Fitzgerald, there is a principle that can’t be taught in a creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it’s worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, but we wouldn’t have those if he hadn’t been like that. Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man.”


Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

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TT: Almanac

“There is no surer sign of a great writer than when whole books could be made out of his passing remarks.”


Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Aphorismen (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

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TT: Still in the barrel

I continue to joust with increasingly urgent deadlines, and for now I feel the need to spend such free time as I have (and there isn’t much of it) consuming art instead of writing about it. I will, however, pause to tell you about my recent reading and listening:


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TT: Almanac

“Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought.”


Miguel de Unamuno, Ensayos (quoted in Clive James, Cultural Amnesia)

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TT: Under the gun

Am experiencing severe deadline-related problems. Check back with me again tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

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