Analyzing Joan Didion’s voice

Joan Didion has a most recognizable and influential voice, as in this selection from “Goodbye to All That,” 1967:

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

I would characterize the persona speaking to us here as sophisticated, world-weary, sardonic and edgy, intense, knowing and sad. What devices create this voice?

Her sentences are long and complex, even the short ones. She creates rolling rhythms, mostly with simple words and lengthy clauses, with lots of things inserted into them. She use no contractions, lifting the formality slightly. She repeats parallel phrases. Some of her sentences have extended, introductory dependent clauses. She builds toward powerful images at the end of sentences: “the shining and perishable dream itself,” “one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.” She uses specific images of stores and places to build up a sense of plenitude pointing toward abstractions. We have a sense that she’s thinking in front of us, in her back-and-forth clauses and phrases, all tightly controlled by precise sentences.

[How do you experience this voice?]

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 7:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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