The use of narrative devices in the fiction and non-fiction of Joan Didion

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Bush, Linda Mary
Trimmer, Joseph F.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
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The purpose of this study is to examine the use of narrative devices in the fiction and collected non-fiction of Joan Didion in order to evaluate her abilities as a novelist and as a New journalist. The works considered include the novels Run River, Play It As It Lays, and The Book of Common Prayer; the non-fiction works include Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and Salvador.The narrative devices examined are those essential to the sense of story in fiction: plot, character, setting, and point of view. The same devices are examined in the nonfiction works because of their similarity to what Tom Wolfe identifies as the characteristics of New Journalism: scene-by-scene construction, dialogue, third person point of view, and the detailing of status life.Conclusions1. Didion's fiction is weak. She combines narrative elements artificially rather than artistically. The plots in each novel are contrived, beset with problems of plausibility and insufficient character motivation. Didion's personal sensibility affects her fictive point of view, making it artificial and subjective. Setting has a disproportionate emphasis.2. In both genre Didion emphasizes a common theme: the effect of time and place on her own sensibility. Although this strengthens the non-fiction, it weakens the fiction. Her over-abundant use of setting details is appropriate in her non-fiction where the subject is herself in specific times and places. In the fiction the setting overshadows other narrative elements.3. Didion uses narrative devices effectively in her non-fiction. She exercises methods of developing characters and detailing setting in the non-fiction as well as, or better than, in her fiction. Her selection' and arrangement process creates a unity much like plot in fiction.4. Didion writes essays primarily. According to Wolfe's guidelines, only three of the works in her collected non-fiction qualify as New Journalism. Although she uses techniques of characterization, scene construction, and status life detail, Didion's point of view, with the exception of the three works, is the subjective perspective of the essayist.5. Didion writes better in the real world of nonfiction than she does in the imaginary world of fiction.