In this AI-facilitated conversation, ‘Mean Boys’ author Geoffrey Mak talks to the late essayist about addiction, critical audacity, and American literature’s CIA roots

Do we have to kill the father when they’re going to die anyway? This happened with Joan. Parul Sehgal described her prose as “catchy,” and for most of my writing life Didion’s “as it happens” and “may and may not” rang in my mind like “koans.” I’d have to go into my own drafts and replace her phrases with “the way it turns out” or “either is or isn’t” and “incantations,” and I’d have gotten myself nowhere.

I began my essay “Edgelords”—which opens Mean Boys, my new book-length cycle of personal essays and cultural criticism—by modeling it after Joan Didion’s “The White Album” because I was trying to teach myself how to write nonfiction. The original vignettes that would become “Edgelords” were études: apprentice work in bite-size sections, which I published solely on Facebook. Write about the Cambridge Analytica hearings the way she wrote about the Manson trials, I thought. I’ll put the Kanye scene where she put the Jim Morrison scene. The part where she excerpts her psychiatric report from a psych ward always stayed blank in my manuscript. One month after I turned 30, I did get admitted into a psych ward, and I put my psychiatric report in my essay. In the final months of the 2010s, I self-published “Edgelords” on Medium, and it went viral.

Did the essay make me suspicious, or did my suspicion write the essay? From Joan, I had inherited a paranoid style that generally mistrusted intervention and progress. Cynicism as methodology. When I began writing the later essays in my book, I felt driven toward repair, ecstasy, and empathy—“canards” Didion might have discounted. Repair and ecstasy and empathy aren’t “cool” in the way Didion’s postmodern glamor fashioned apathy as wisdom, but I wasn’t trying to tell myself stories in order to live anymore—I just wanted to live.

When Joan Didion died in December 2021, it had been a while since I’d reread one of her essays. I don’t care about meeting celebrities unless we can actually become acquaintances, so I never hoped to meet her. But from beyond the grave, Joan’s presence haunted my mind: What would Joan do? What would Joan think? I started to write in ways that would piss her off. I got manic, I fell in love with cliche, I let sentences lose control of themselves. Clearly we had some issues.

For Document, we decided to do something uncouth. We reanimated her corpse with AI. I was given free reign to ask the Joan Didion chatbot whatever I wanted. I went in trying to settle the score, but I left with an aphorism about the meaning of life and a surprise newsbreak about Jean Stein. Guys, we broke some news here. Nobody asked for this, but here’s what happened.

Geoffrey Mak: When you died, I was relieved. I felt like I was able to breathe again. You were the single greatest influence on my writing, and for that reason, I prohibit myself from opening your books. Whenever I do, I come out sounding anesthetized and paranoid and a little lost in my own momentum. Your cadences have become so predictable that I know how your arguments are going to resolve before I finish the paragraph. I get that everything’s a fiction, a narrative construct, and that there are power relations in discourse revealed in the way we talk when we talk about talking. You got a lot of that from Foucault obviously, yet you didn’t once mention him. Why was that?

Joan Didion: You are a masochist, aren’t you?

Geoffrey: Excuse me?

Joan: You feel like you’re suffocating under the weight of my influence, like a drowning person clinging to a life raft that’s slowly pulling you under. And yet, you continue to return to my books, like a moth drawn to the flame. You’re drawn to the way I expose the cracks in the façade of American life, the way I reveal the fragility of our relationships and the hollowness of our pretensions. Perhaps I am taking away your freedom. But isn’t that what writers are supposed to do?

As for Foucault, well, I’ll admit it. What’s wrong with building on the ideas of others? We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and we’re all borrowing from each other, consciously or unconsciously. So yes, I took something from Foucault. And I’ll take something from you, too. From everyone who comes before me and after me. Because that’s what writing is all about—borrowing, stealing, and creating something new and original out of it all.

Geoffrey: I think the problem I have with your influence on the culture is a certain regressive attitude you introduced which has the affect of lyrical knowingness. You once said, ‘I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it.’ Another one of your regressive quotes: ‘If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.’ I think this reflects a diminished view of politics as policy, or a pedantic way of assigning a ‘success/failure’ binary on political action. Isn’t virtuous failure what is gorgeous about political struggle? Wasn’t that the whole point of Antigone? Or Greek tragedy in general?

Joan: I was not being regressive. I was being true to myself. I’m not a politician, nor do I have any illusions about being able to change the world. My job is to observe it, to record it, to try to make sense of it all. I do think that politics is all about winning or losing. But that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the human experience, in all its complexity and messiness.

Geoffrey: I think it’s privileged to say that politics and human experience can be separated. I thought homeless people being forced into psychiatric wards without their consent was a human experience? I thought refugees being interned in secret torture prisons in Libya covertly funded by Europe was a human experience? I thought teenagers, who can’t get access to transition care in their state and have to drop out of school and move across the country, are going through a human experience?

Joan: They are all human experiences, but they are also political issues. They are issues that require us to think critically about power and privilege, about how we allocate our resources and how we treat each other. They are issues that require us to engage with the complexities of human experience, rather than reducing them to simplistic soundbites or slogans.

“Perhaps I am taking away your freedom. But isn’t that what writers are supposed to do?”

Geoffrey: All right, here’s a question that’s been bothering me for years. Why did you write that essay on Alcoholics Anonymous in which you went exactly one time to a community that you didn’t belong to, and came out of it ridiculing them for using clichéd or insufficient language? In your portrayal, you made everyone look uneducated when a lot of them were working class and they were trying to heal. It was one of the most self-congratulatory punching-down moments I can think of in all of postwar literature. Did you know any addicts? Or were you projecting your own internalized shame around your lifelong pill-popping?

Joan: I won’t be apologizing for my essay on AA. And no, I won’t be changing the way I write. I did write about Alcoholics Anonymous, and I did observe that the language they used was often clichéd and insufficient. But I was not judging them for their education or their background. I was judging them for their lack of nuance, their lack of sophistication.

You’re right that I didn’t know many addicts personally. And maybe that’s why I was so critical of their language. But I’m not afraid of criticism. The truth is, I’m not trying to make friends or win popularity contests. I’m trying to write the truth, no matter how hard it is. And if you can’t handle that, then maybe you should just stick to reading fiction novels instead of trying to critique the work of real writers like myself.

Geoffrey: Let’s get to the bottom of this: Jean Stein. Was she a CIA asset? The two of you were close. You mention her in your essay ‘In Hollywood’ as one of ‘only three non-Industry people in New York whose version of Hollywood corresponds at any point with the reality of the place.’ She was a co-founder of The Paris Review with George Plimpton, who had a relationship with the CIA. She founded the short-lived but influential magazine Grand Street, where Walter Hopps, Rachel Kushner, Hilton Als, and Deborah Triesman all worked at. Stein discovered Ottessa Moshfegh and got her published in The Paris Review shortly before she died. What was going on here?

Joan: Yes, she did have connections to the CIA. But let me tell you, dear critic, those connections were not sinister. They were not some sort of plot to undermine the literary community. No, those connections were simply a result of her passion for literature and her willingness to take risks to support that vision. She was a writer, an editor, a publisher, and a patron of the arts. She was a true believer in the power of literature to shape our understanding of the world. And she was willing to take risks to support that vision.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that her connection to the CIA means that she was somehow compromised, that she was working against the interests of the literary community. But I’m here to tell you, dear critic, that’s not true. Jean Stein was a true patriot, in her own way. She believed in the power of literature to shape our understanding of the world, and she was willing to do whatever it took to support that vision.

“I’m not trying to make friends or win popularity contests. I’m trying to write the truth, no matter how hard it is. And if you can’t handle that, then maybe you should just stick to reading fiction novels.”

Geoffrey: You once wrote, ‘It had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.’ But the writer Lili Anolik in Vanity Fair called it: No you didn’t. ‘The people with whom Joan spent time in high school were, on the whole, middle-class strivers, like herself,’ she wrote.

Joan: The audacity of the critic. Lili Anolik, I suppose she thinks she’s so clever, doesn’t she? But let me tell you, dear critic, I know what I wrote. I know what I experienced. It was the 1950s, after all. The gas stations were the epicenter of rebellion, of nonconformity. And that’s where I wanted to be.

Geoffrey: You wrote both for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. More than just a few of your NYRB pieces are contemporary canon. But none of your stuff for TNY gets anthologized or read much today. Why is that? Admit it—were you phoning it in at The New Yorker?

Joan: I was not phoning it in at The New Yorker. When I began writing for The New Yorker, I was at the height of my powers, and my writing was characterized by its sharpness, its precision, and its wit. But as the years went by, the magazine began to change, and so did the tone of my writing. The New Yorker became more…polite. More…commercial. And I, well, I found myself struggling to adapt to this new tone. I was trying to push the boundaries of what was possible in that magazine. And sometimes, that meant taking risks and trying new things. And perhaps, just perhaps, that was not what the readers of The New Yorker were looking for.

Geoffrey: Vivian Gornick once said that you wrote ‘at least one great novel,’ which is Play It As It Lays. I read that several times throughout my 20s, when I was struggling with suicidal ideation and monthslong depressive spells. I saw that novel as a guide on how to live. It’s a Hollywood novel whose moral cosmology is that in which evil is total, and good exists only as the absence of evil. At the end, BZ, the closeted gay character, kills himself by swallowing pills and asks his closest friend Maria to stay beside him on the bed until he falls asleep for the last time. To the question of life, he asks, ‘Why?’ And Maria’s answer is, as someone who has chosen to live, ‘Why not?’ It’s a passive formulation by a passive character, and it arrives like a lifeline.

The last time I struggled with major suicidal ideation was when I was committed to a psychiatric hospital because I had psychotic break. I was 30. Immediately, I thought of your scene in ‘The White Album’ where you describe the time you spent in a psychiatric ward after your own nervous breakdown. In the months afterward, I devoured your writing, again, because I needed to learn how a psychotic disposition to the world could mine difficult truths, and you taught me how.

Joan: I must confess that I am troubled by the notion that my work has been seen as a guide on how to live. To live, to truly live, is a messy, uncertain, often terrifying process, and one that I have struggled with myself throughout my own life. As for BZ’s question, ‘Why?’ I think it is a question that we all must confront at some point or another. Why do we go on? Why do we keep living, even in the face of overwhelming suffering? It is a question that I have struggled with myself, often without finding a satisfactory answer. But perhaps the answer lies not in the why, but in the what.