In 1988, Joan Didion joined a melee of journalists on the tarmac at the San Diego airport to witness the writing of the first draft in history. The assembled journalists followed Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. She followed the journalists. Didion watched a baseball being bought, a staff member threw the ball at the contestant, he returned it – and while cameras dutifully captured the rally. She observed that presidential fitness was being redefined as a sporting feat with the consent of the national media, as the myths that shape and limit Americans’ sense of political possibility were fabricated in real time. She documented the moment in an essay for the New York Book Review. It was titled “Insider Baseball,” and it has since been, like so many of Didion’s essays, so widely imitated that its innovations can be easily overlooked. But the play was singular and scathing: a collective profile of, as she writes, “that handful of initiates who, year after year, invent the narrative of public life”.

Didion has passed away today at 87, still one of the most debated, admired and important writers of this time. Thinking of his vast work – essays, novels, memoirs, reviews, each with their own unique tendrils and limbs – I keep coming back to “Insider Baseball” because it captures something so essential in its approach. She was a storyteller who rejected mythology. She had no patience for the pablum sold in the fast-paced American market: bootstraps, merits, salutes. Its most common topic, instead, was entropy. And her second most common topic was grief. She observed the world that was, even as she mourned the world that could have been.

The first line of “The White Album”, Didion’s partially autobiographical LA story in the 1960s, reads: “We tell each other stories to live.” What we sometimes forget is the series of verses that follow. “We interpret what we see, select the most feasible of multiple choices,” she wrote in part. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, from the imposition of a narrative line on disparate images,” ideas “with which we have learned to freeze the moving phantasmagoria which is our real experience. “

Readers today might get irritated by all of these strident assessments being made on their behalf: Who is “us” here, exactly? But humans’ desire to make sense of the world is species-level seduction. Our thirst for history is elementary, and therefore essential. Didion’s work is perhaps easy to romanticize – I read his speech turned essay “Why I Write” when I was young, and his account of the world as a series of images that “sparkle at the edges” still evokes the old tenderness – but his project was clearly anti-romantic. She looked at herself, yes. She wrote “On Self-Respect” and “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping a Notebook” and other works that are sometimes recycled today in screen-printed wisdom. But even in his most sentimental writings, his own emotions weren’t the end of his stories. They were the start. She was her own data point.

His cool had a double valence. See, in one shot, the portrait of her as a young woman, posed in front of this Corvette Stingray, her cigarette at her fingertips, her face frozen in a carefree gaze. But she also directed the freshness inward. She questioned her own perceptions with the stoicism of a scientist. She was, you might say, a misplaced modernist. She learned her craft in part by rewriting Hemingway’s stories on her typewriter, trying to train her tendons in her rhythms and arrhythmias. It broadened the possibilities of what language could do, not only in the manner of the fictional techniques applied to non-fiction in new journalism, but also in a stricter sense: its words lodge, stab and heal. They itch. They hurt. Her work recognizes the power of stories to shape reality; his sensibility was therefore also downright postmodern. In the clinical precision of her prose, she captured the cellular intimacy of the narrative, the hold it can have on the soft tissues of the human heart. But she also asked readers to resist “the imposition of a narrative line.” She doubted herself and wanted to be doubted too. When she spoke of the stories we tell each other for a living, she wasn’t offering a vaporous statement. She was issuing an indictment.

That mark of jaded realism – that wandering frustration with fictions that claim to be transcendent truths – is part of why his work has remained so urgently topical, for an unlikely number of decades. (“You get a wife,” Didion writes of herself in “In the Islands,” “who somewhere along the line has strayed the weak faith she ever had in the social contract, in principle ameliorative, in the whole of the great model of humanity. effort. ”) Optimism, America’s most revolving resource, can crush people as easily as it can sustain them. With an anthropologist’s eye and an artistic imagination, Didion documented disillusions and disenchantments, dreams that were both rapid and dead. She named her own regrets and mourned the paths she had left unfinished. She examined her grief. She was also examining the grief of others. She wrote about California, her birthplace and later her chosen home, as dusty and often delusional, her handwriting evoking a place where almost everything, dreams and cars and houses and people, could be made throwaway. Something better will surely be in store, his characters tell themselves, because that’s the line they’ve been told. They throw away what they have to make room for what they don’t want.

Didion’s writing is cinematic, not because it is radical or epic – on the contrary, Didion’s typical piece of prose is pungent in its details – but because his words are informed by the grammars of the film. Didion lived for a time in Hollywood; his work also lives in Hollywood. She used jump cuts to move from moment to moment. She was always attentive to the framing of the scenes. She channeled the gaze of the camera. His shaken relationships can sometimes be interpreted as horror. In his book South and West: from a notebook, she mentioned a man she dated. “We lived together for a few years,” she remarked, “and I think we understood each other better when I once tried to kill him with a kitchen knife.” In Crouching towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote of a woman whose husband died – accidentally or not, because some things cannot be fully known – in a raging car fire. She observed a 5-year-old girl in Haight-Ashbury whose mother had given her LSD. She made the rot visceral. “The teenagers drifted from city to city torn apart,” she writes, “shedding both the past and the future as the snakes shed their skins, children who were never educated and would never learn. never the games that had kept the company together ”.

It’s not the Instagram-friendly Didion, the Didion of branded quotes and iconography, and the $ 1,200 jacket. It was Didion the journalist who coined the term Dreampolitik and who insisted on seeing the world as it was. A common and fair criticism of Didion is that his composure borders on cold at times. In The center will not hold, the documentary on Didion directed by his nephew Griffin Dunne, Dunne questions him about this scene in the Haight which, repackaged in pointillist prose, would help to make it famous: Susan, 5, sitting on the floor of her living room, small and vulnerable and tripping over acid. What was it, Dunne wondered, to be a witness? One might think, the New Yorker Writer Rebecca Mead suggested Didion respond as a person – describing a panic she was feeling, or an urge to call an ambulance, or her thoughts turning to her own little girl. Instead, Didion, the detached observer, plunges the knife: “Let me tell you,” Didion says. “It was gold.”

The line recalls Didion’s statement, in “Why I Write”, that writing, with its distances and its purposes, “is the tactic of a secret tyrant”. Didion saw Susan at that time not as a child in need of help, but as an idea in need of expression. “It was the first time that I had dealt directly and bluntly with the obviousness of atomization, the proof that things are collapsing,” she wrote in the preface to Collapse towards Bethlehem.

Didion is often nowadays associated with the “I” – the pronoun of memory, romantic storm, self. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what that means,” she writes in “Why I’m writing.” But, as always, there is more to the story. (The title of Didion’s latest collection of essays is deeply ironic and aptly fitting: Let me tell you what i mean. She will tell you. But she’ll tell you at length.) The rest of the essay explains what Didion means. She does not speak of herself to the exclusion of the world. It just recognizes that the world will always be refracted through the ego.

The first person can be forgiving. It can be incurable, focusing only on the sinkholes and ridges of the psyche. But Didion’s “I” is analytical. She anticipated with startling rapidity the debates that still shape American journalism, including the assumption of her ruling class that objectivity – the rules-based arbitration of reality – is possible. Didion said goodbye to all this a long time ago. His stories were coupled with meditations on questions that had become more urgent: how to win the right to tell a story? What does the author owe his reader in terms of self-disclosure? Which stories are fair to tell? In her essay “In the Islands”, Didion explains to the reader that she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, went to Hawaii instead of getting a divorce. “I am telling you this not as an aimless revelation,” she wrote, “but because I want you to know, by reading me, precisely who I am, where I am and what I think. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.

It is the “I”, strident, lucid and frank. It is an “I” that reaches the reader: Didion’s writings are refracted through the prisms of her many privileges, and she sees no need to pretend otherwise. But his is an “I” that rejects the sentimentalism of the present American moment. To feel is now a default verb in literary criticism. Donald Trump built his political movement from a collection of prefabricated furies. The business models of many of the nation’s most powerful companies are based on keeping Americans inflamed, resentful and suspicious. We live in a time of bad feelings. We live in a time of raw nerves and unraveling stories. We live in a time when our old binding agents are dissolving in our poisonous air. Didion saw it coming. She was crying for what would be lost. She knew how possible it was, even and especially in the land of golden dreams, for things to fall apart.