LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN
By Joan Didion
There is no mistaking, at the mention of plastic hydrangeas, that one is reading Joan Didion. Much like the words “MIRACLES STILL HAPPEN” written in pink icing on a Gamblers Anonymous anniversary cake, or the paper napkins at the Hearst Castle, fake flowers are one of many visual, allegorical asterisks that comprise the risible terms of this veteran writer’s American mise-en-scène.
In five decades’ worth of essays, reportage and criticism, Didion has documented the charade implicit in how things are, in a first-person, observational style that is not sacrosanct but common-sensical. Seeing as a way of extrapolating hypocrisy, disingenuousness and doubt, she’ll notice the hydrangeas are plastic and mention it once, in passing, sorting the scene. Her gaze, like a sentry on the page, permanently trained on what is being disguised.
The 12 previously published essays collected (mostly) for the first time in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” were written between the late 1960s and the year 2000. They are gathered coolly, unevenly, with an easygoing generalness, like a Didion digest. Or, since nearly every piece in the collection contains some mention of flowers, like a Didion bouquet. After all, she is her own kind of arranger — of words, of story — whose intuition for narrative arc is matched by her intuition for syntax.
Revisiting her work now provides a familiar joy, as well as a reminder of her prescience. Didion has a facility with bad omens, particularly when it comes to Ronald Reagan’s tenure as the governor of California. Telling Didion that “having a pretty place to work is important to a man,” Nancy Reagan fills an apothecary jar with hard candies for his desk, carpets the floors of the State Capitol “in a pleasing shade of green,” Didion writes. (What green carpet, Didion’s deadpan delivery invites us to ask, has ever been “pleasing”?) Didion’s understated tone registers the nuances obscured by the quotidian: the stiff neutrality between mother and son (“The Skipper’s arrival is, I have been told, the pivotal point of Nancy Reagan’s day”), Nancy’s preference for little choreographies.