Book review: let me tell you what i mean- a new collection of short stories
by joan didion
Will Gillette '22
Joan Didions’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean is the perfect title for what to expect in these newly published short stories. These 12 stories (mostly short essays), were actually written between 1968 and 2000; they just never got published until this year. These previously unseen stories give us a closer glimpse into Didion’s mind through various topics. Ranging from a fictional account of someone at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to an essay confronting Martha Stewart’s authenticity, these essays cover a wide range of situations. Nonetheless, each is a display of Didion’s fascinating prose and insight into the human condition.
Within this collection of essays, there are quite literally two that directly address Didion's signature style and how she crafts her stories. Her previous work at Vogue has a direct impact on her writing still to this day. She had to keep things concise and really become a master of the English language because of the limited characters. This translates into her writing- it’s very journalistic and almost psychological. Everything in this collection- whether fiction or nonfiction- reads as fiction because of this journalistic approach. It adds a serious tone to everything she writes which pairs well with the dry humor and the underlying philosophical themes she often includes. Every sentence is profound and a clear reflection of what Didion is thinking. The last sentence of “Getting Serenity'' particularly struck me- “I got out fast then, before anyone could say “serenity” again, for it is a word I associate with death, and for several days after that meeting I wanted only to be in places where the lights were bright and no one counted days.” (15) In just this one sentence, the narrator’s complex emotions had a lingering effect on me. The repeated use of “I” combines the narrator's emotions with mine, forcing empathy. In theme with the story, the sentence’s calm tone has a serene feeling. The juxtaposition of this tone with the narrator's seemingly opposite reaction leaves us questioning what it really feels like to find “serenity.”
In addition to the distinct prose throughout these stories, there are continued emotional themes throughout this collection. Themes of authenticity and anxiety are central to almost all stories, especially my favorites, which are “Getting Serenity” and “everywomen.com.” “Getting Serenity” is a short about a person in a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting who quickly leaves. Within just one scene only taking up a few pages, Didion is able to overpower the reader into almost becoming one with the narrator’s first person thoughts. However, we must detach ourselves to see the bigger picture to come to our own conclusions about the boundaries of indulging in vices.
In “everywomen.com” Didion wanted to examine authenticity through her acute deatilling of who Martha Stewart really is. Didion, in detective-like investigation, explores the seemingly perfect career of Stewart. She uses this evidence to show us readers that there is always more than meets the eye, which is especially relevant in modern times when it feels like celebrities are worshipped. Furthermore, Didion goes deeper into the real meaning of why Stewart is so celebrated. Didion concludes that it’s more than just the attraction of her perfect lifestyle, but rather society's influence on the role of women.
In conclusion, the shortness of these essays should not undermine the meaningfulness. Every one of them is profound and is an excellent display of Didion's ability to transfer her personal thoughts on paper. Her prose is unique and gives a reading experience like no other. Anyone who dreams of becoming a writer or something similar must read this collection to see how an icon of American writing came to be.