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Emma Letizia Jones on Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
22 February, 2021
I have always admired Joan Didion because she is a rock star – as much as any writer can be. She is cool, which is rare, and not something you can learn. She is not strictly an architecture writer, but she writes about the intersection of place and memory in an entirely different yet complementary way to someone like Frances Yates. For both writers, the boundaries between things, and between disciplines, blur. Didion is a journalist, a writer, a commentator, and a historian, too. She looks at real American stories in new ways, and this is what gives her her insight. She has written great essays about San Francisco during the counterculture, about America’s suburban inland, about Hollywood, about all kinds of American landscapes and their associated stories.
I love Goodbye to All That, because it recounts the heady years she spent in New York in her twenties, and the reasons why she finally left to save herself. She writes about the banal and the exciting spaces of New York: the Algonquin, her apartment, hotel rooms, parties in wealthy houses. She describes these spaces in great architectural detail, but they always ultimately reflect the narrative of her inner life. Ultimately, Didion can explain New York City in a way that strict architectural writing cannot.
To return to Yates, I think Didion has her own ‘Art of Memory’ practice: she recounts places in writing in order to help her remember events. This essay starts with one of the greatest lines penned by any living writer, and one that is like a proverb to me: ‘It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.’