For some of us, mimicking Joan Didion has become the height of literary ambition, and not just her sentences. “Goodbye to All That” is a jumping-off point, California will fall short of its promise, but there is always Hawaii, and a penthouse, even when you are broke. There is a husband across the hall in his own study in your house in Malibu while you write. This is the Joan Didion who is forever leaning out of that Stingray with a cigarette in her hand. She appeared to be living in her sentences, and it was this intimacy that took me everywhere that she had been, even in the decades before I was born. The text might say it was hard, but the style makes it look easy.
It’s a fine essay, and one that manages to get at the fascination with Didion — one part literary stylist and one part just plain style. Didion’s lifestyle, more than her life itself, is an object of lust among many young artistic types I know. Luxurious, but detached. Glamorous and thoughtful at the same time. Sure, you go to the Oscars every year — and more importantly, the Vanity Fair Oscar party — but you keep a little Moleskine in your handbag or your back pocket and you sneak off to the restroom to jot down notes for a piece in Esquire or The New Yorker.
I’ll admit to a certain level of Didion fantasizing of my own. I’m married to a fiction writer, for God’s sake. Of course we harbor idealized Didion-Dunne fantasies. In my version of the fantasies, I get to be Joan Didion. Or at least, I get to write like her. For me, it’s her prose that I’m envious of. Take the opening paragraphs of her novel Play It As It Lays:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in their thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.
This is stylish prose. Look at how she phrases a series of questions but does so without question marks. Because she doesn’t ask those questions, not any more. These two paragraphs, in my opinion, are among the best opening lines to a novel ever. They propel the reader forward because they leave open so much. Why doesn’t she ask those questions any more? But also, I think, the paragraphs stylistically invite the reader in. They hint at a world without revealing it. The sentences themselves aren’t difficult to read, but they offer enough resistance that a reader might look at them again. They’re tone-setters, and brilliant ones at that.
Thinking about Didion’s style got me thinking about another great stylist, Sam Lipsyte. I’m about 2/3 finished with Lipsyte’s new novel The Ask (due in March from FSG), and the prose is so remarkable, so unique. Check out the opening paragraphs from The Ask:
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father’s garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree.
The wordiness — and I mean that in a good way — the jumbled, frantic pace of the writing, it overwhelms, doesn’t it? The proper names mixed in with all those hyphenated compound adjectives and verbs — “frost-nerved,” “diamond-fanged,” “dick-smacked” — it’s an onslaught. What does this prose tell you about the book to come? For one thing, it tells you that the book will be about excess, in some way, about extravagance or decadence. It not only tells you this, through Horace’s little speech about America, but it also shows you this, through this blitzkrieg of prose. Pretty brilliant, huh?
The Lipsyte passage, I gather, isn’t for everyone. The book, brilliant though it is, demands something from the reader. It offers, in my opinion, a little more resistance than the Didion. It’s not that Lipsyte’s novel is confusing or even difficult, really, but some of those sentences get a little sticky, and I wonder if this stickiness is what has prevented him from blowing up into the enormously popular writer I think he ought to be. In the past two weeks, I’ve laughed so hard while reading this book on the Metro that five people have moved to other seats to avoid being near me. That’s how great of a writer he is, and yet, his sales, from what I can tell, don’t yet match his talent. Either the marketing departments of his publishers are failing him or his style doesn’t attract that many people. Maybe when folks pick up a Lipsyte book, that first paragraph doesn’t just leap off the page at them. They might enjoy the book if they gave it some time, but come on, who gives anything time anymore?
I think of Sam Lipsyte often when considering the future of literary fiction. See, if we can’t sell Sam Lipsyte, something is wrong. Something, somewhere, is broken. But how to fix it? Some people feel that “crowdsourcing” or whatever buzz term you’d like to apply to it is the future of all content. Put it out there, and let the market decide what’s worthwhile. If enough people “digg it” or whatever, it will rise to the top, much like a blog post or an article would. This can work, and does work, for certain kinds of content. But it can’t work for everything. If a book like Home Land (Lipsyte’s previous novel) or The Ask doesn’t pass the browse-test, how is it going to fair in a digital marketplace, where it doesn’t have the benefit of physical placement? I worry about this. Can we mass-curate literary fiction? If we try to, what might happen to writers whose style is difficult or challenging?