Run, River and Thinking about Joan Didion

Joan Didion

Run, River

Vintage (1961, various reprints)

Paperback NZD 30.00

Joan Didion, Run, River, Vintage, first published 1961 (1994 Printing)

Joan Didion’s 1961 debut novel Run, River (also her first published book) begins with what is known in the film business as a ‘cold open’: a tantalising incident that occurs before the title sequence. In this case, an act of explosive violence takes the reader by the throat from the very first line. While mercifully short, this scene triggers a circular narrative that will eventually return to the moment of calamity. The story bridging this ellipsis is far from interstitial, traversing many literal and emotional seasons, while exploring the culture and history of the novel’s inland California setting. The result is an epic in the guise of a domestic melodrama, a ‘Great American Novel’ crammed into the svelte 260-page frame of a novella.

Now in her ninth decade, Didion is a deserved literary and cultural darling, largely as a result of her non-fiction. In a versatile 60-year career, she has cooly eviscerated the excesses of the ‘Summer of Love’ generation, chronicled the darkness and light of Californian life, called-out folk devils and institutional bias, invented the modern genre of the ‘first-person’ confessional essay and been a memoirist of late-life trauma and endurance. To her critics, however, Didion’s greatest success has been patenting a highly manicured image of her own glamorous and privileged life. As the hagiographic recent Netflix documentary failed to reckon with, Didion the eternally chic waif is revered at least on parr with Didion the tenacious reporter and crafter of crystalline sentences. These two facets of identity are indeed so thoroughly entwined, its difficult to know which is dominant in the estimation of Didion’s many (and there are many) acolytes. Caitlyn Flanagan has written most elegantly on this duality in the Atlantic.

Joan Didion. Image: Julian Wasser/Netflix.

While fiction (she is the author of four novels) has occupied a good amount of Didion’s creative energy, her output as a novelist is, all considered, an alloyed success and much less influential than her journalism and personal essays. While it is impossible to give this body of work the treatment it deserves in this space, it will suffice to say that her novels share an elegant, if relatively unexceptional, literary realism, and a tendency to focus on the morays and characteristics endemic to her native Californians.

A rural valley near the State Capital (and Didion’s hometown) of Sacramento is where Run, River begins in earnest in 1938. The area, we learn, is home to ‘twelve generations’ of ‘ranchers’, affluent agriculturalists descended from the pioneers who had made treacherous journeys across the great deserts of the South-West and the fearsome Sierra Nevada and Carson mountain ranges by wagon in the early nineteenth century. The most notorious story to emerge from the ‘pioneer trail’ was that of the Donnor-Reed Party, real-life travelling companions of Didion’s ancestors, who set out for what is now California in 1846, many dying miserably on the way.

At the heart of this slim novel are two families of friends and neighbours: vivacious orchard owners and state politicians The Knights and the more reserved, hardworking hop-farmers, The McClellans. At age 17, the beautiful but painfully shy Lily Knight is seduced by her childhood friend Everett McClellan and the pair elope after an intense, furtive courtship. Despite an almost pathologically deep connection, the marriage is often an unhappy one. Everett can be distant and uncommunicative, while Lily’s insecurity and aimless life as an affluent housewife cause her to embark on a series of  infidelities. Most pernicious is an entanglement with freewheeling schemer Ryder Channing, onetime suitor of her unstable sister-in-law, Martha. In unravelling this skein of relationships and loyalties, Didion expertly evokes the claustrophobia of being caught in an unchanging and stale social-familial set.

In addition to their self-inflicted wounds, the Knights-McClellan’s way of life comes under increasing pressure from economic and social changes reshaping California, in particular the arrival of newcomers from the Eastern states, industrialisation and creeping suburbanisation of their previously isolated locale. These developments bring great opportunities for the ranchers as large freeholders, while subtly eroding their traditional lifestyle, a tension Didion explores without it ever seeming inorganic or didactic.

The racial and class divides of life in the semi-rural West are rendered here in intricate and illuminating detail, in particular the complacent contempt of the ‘Pioneers’ for the wave of ‘Okies’ arriving from the South and Mid-West, a distinction that will be superseded by the mass immigration and diversification of the 1950s. A poignant early passage conveys the characters’ sense of growing obsolescence, as Lily recalls the disdain her son Knight had expressed that she ‘did not seem to realise that there were paperback bookstores in Sacramento. She and his father never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing … bringing in a whole new class of people who lived back East, who read things, who had never heard of the Knights or the McClellans’. Didion is also insightful on the ranchers’ almost intimate yet uncomfortable reliance on the labour of Mexicans (or ‘wetbacks’ in the slur de jour). While often highly esteemed individually, collectively they are reflexively disdained as shiftless and infantile, a jarring reminder of the deeply ingrained racism behind the ranchers’ genteel facades.

The Knight-McClellan’s own dissatisfaction, rather than any of these external forces, poses the most fundamental threat to the clan. The true enemy of their happiness is a toxicity that develops due to members of the later generations like Lily who harbour modern aspirations toward companionate marriage and self-actualisation and push ineffectually against a hidebound environment in denial of liberating forces such as divorce, birth-control and female professional empowerment. At its core, Run, River is a story of generational decay, but a laudably ambivalent one. At only 27, Didion  was already wise enough to realise that the historical and cultural conditions that once sustained her ‘pioneer’ ancestors dominance had by the mid-twentieth century become obsolete and were perhaps not all worth preserving in the first place.

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