Joan Didion, a virtuosic prose stylist who for more than four decades explored the agitated, fractured state of the American psyche in her novels, essays, criticism and memoirs, and who as one of the “New Journalists” of the 1960s and ’70s helped reportorial nonfiction acquire the status of an art form, died Dec. 23 at her home in Manhattan. She was 87.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to a statement from her publisher, Knopf.

With an unwavering eye and piercing intellect, Ms. Didion revealed an America gripped by moral decadence and self-deception, in thrall to false narratives that offered little explanation about how the world worked.

Her trenchant, frequently contrarian opinions on subjects as varied as the films of Woody Allen and the traffic in Los Angeles were matched by a precise style that was nearly universally admired. “Try to rearrange one of her sentences,” New York Times critic John Leonard once wrote, “and you’ve realized that the sentence was inevitable, a hologram.”

Many of her early works — the classic essay collections “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979) and the quick-cutting novel “Play It As It Lays” (1970) — chronicled the grim realities of mid-century California. In that sun-dappled land of pleasure and possibility, the nation seemed instead to be falling apart, atomized by greed and amorality.

Ms. Didion argued “that the Norman Rockwell version of America was a convenient illusion, and that if you looked closely, we lived in a time in which fear and anxiety and isolation and loneliness were our common laws,” said Martin Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor of entertainment, media and society, in a 2015 interview.

In her later years, Ms. Didion became known for her dispassionate memoirs on death and grieving. In “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), she tracked the elliptical, death-denying patterns of thought that dominated her life after the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack at home, where he and Ms. Didion had just returned after visiting their daughter in the hospital.

“Long before what I wrote began to be published,” Ms. Didion wrote at the book’s outset, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” Yet, she continued, “this is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”

The book sold more than 1 million copies, won the National Book Award and was adapted by Ms. Didion into a well-received Broadway play starring her friend Vanessa Redgrave. Its success was darkened by the death of Ms. Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, shortly after publication. A follow-up, “Blue Nights,” was released in 2011 to critical acclaim.

Like Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, Ms. Didion was one of the few writers of her era who were instantly recognizable to a mass audience through their cultivation of an off-the-page mystique. Photographed for Time magazine shortly after the publication of “Slouching,” she seemed a paragon of sang-froid, posing in front of her yellow Corvette Stingray with a cigarette in hand.

She remained a fashion icon late in life, photographed for a Céline ad in 2015 with her hair in a bob and her eyes obscured by a pair of large, dark sunglasses. Yet she also explored her physical fragility, writing about her frequent migraines and revealing, in the title essay of “The White Album,” that she had gone blind for six weeks from a condition diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, and had checked herself into a psychiatric clinic.

In her view, her diminutive size worked only in her favor.

“I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” she wrote in the preface to “Slouching.” “And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

Ms. Didion and Dunne, a fellow novelist, largely funded their literary work by writing and revising Hollywood screenplays. Ensconced in the social whirl of 1970s Hollywood, the couple hosted and partied with stars including Warren Beatty and the Mamas and the Papas, and were among the most highly paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

Their films included “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971), which starred Al Pacino as a New York drug addict and hustler; “A Star Is Born” (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as rising and fading rock singers, respectively; and “True Confessions” (1981), featuring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall in an adaptation of Dunne’s L.A. crime novel.

A hellish eight years spent writing and rewriting “Up Close and Personal,” a widely panned 1996 romantic drama starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, was chronicled by Dunne in his 1997 nonfiction book “Monster.”

Ms. Didion herself was often disparaging of screenwriting, which she told the Paris Review was “not writing” but “notes for the director.”

The other writing she did, the “true” writing of her essays and books, was essential to her life. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she said in “Why I Write,” the title of a talk and essay. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

'It's make-believe'

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 1934, to a fourth-generation California family. Her father sold insurance and later became a real estate speculator; her mother, Ms. Didion later wrote, was a socialite who “ ‘gave teas’ the way other mothers breathed.”

Traveling across the country with her father, who worked as a finance officer with the Army Air Forces during World War II, she developed a nearly lifelong habit of taking her notebook with her wherever she went, furtively recording snatches of dialogue from adults whispering behind closed doors or convalescing at military hospitals.

Shortly before graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956, Ms. Didion won a Vogue magazine contest for young writers. Choosing between the contest’s two prize options, a trip to Paris or a job at Vogue, she decided she would try her luck at the magazine’s offices in New York.

On the side, she wrote for publications including the National Review, the Nation and the Saturday Evening Post. Whether praising the work ethic of an ill and aging John Wayne or, in later years, offering a scathing critique of Woody Allen and the “faux adults” in movies such as “Manhattan” and “Interiors,” she developed a reputation as an independent-minded critic, fiercely concerned with authenticity.

In 1964, she married Dunne, who was working as a staff writer at Time. They quickly left for Hollywood, where Dunne’s older brother, Dominick, worked as a movie producer and was able to introduce them to studio executives around town.

Rocked by alcohol and their shared ambition to be great writers, their marriage was tumultuous in its early years, a fact that Ms. Didion did not hesitate to incorporate into her work. When in 1969 she was given a regular column at Life, she began her first piece this way, describing a family trip to Hawaii: “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.” Dunne, as he always did, edited the story.

Their daughter, Quintana Roo, was born in 1966 and soon adopted by Ms. Didion and her husband, who named her for a state in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. They returned to New York in 1988, taking an apartment on the Upper East Side, where Ms. Didion lived until her death.

She received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2013 and later participated in a documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” (2017), directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne. She has no immediate survivors.

The 'narrative'

A Barry Goldwater Republican for much of the 1960s, Ms. Didion gradually became disillusioned with the GOP during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California. The stories she grew up on — of a West built by rugged individuals, aided only by their grit and determination — began to seem foreign, she wrote. California’s success appeared mainly the product of big business propped up by government funding.

Encouraged by Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, she increasingly focused on the theater and hypocrisy of American politics in nonfiction books such as “Salvador” (1983), about U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s civil war, “Miami” (1987), about that city’s Cuban immigrant community, and the essay collection “After Henry” (1992).

Named for her friend and editor Henry Robbins, who died in 1979, “After Henry” included a memorable account of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis relaxing on the campaign trail by playing a painfully contrived game of catch — credulously described by some reporters as just one example of the candidate’s “regular guy” personality.

The press was a frequent target in her work, with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward taking some of her most biting criticism in a 1996 essay, included in her collection “Political Fictions” (2001), that described his reporting after Watergate as mere stenography for the nation’s political elite.

Ms. Didion also examined politics in novels such as “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977), which set a mother’s search for her daughter against a backdrop of international terrorism and Central American revolution. That book was followed by the Vietnam War-era novel “Democracy” (1984) and “The Last Thing He Wanted” (1996), about a political reporter for The Post who finds herself embroiled in a foreign arms deal.

Not everyone approved of her turn toward the political, or her tendency toward nihilistic subject matter. Writing for the London Review of Books, novelist Martin Amis lamented her “somewhat top-heavy interest in madness and stupefaction — the vanished knack of ‘making things matter.’ ”

Her political work, as well as her more personal writing in books such as “Where I Was From” (2003), a blend of memoir and California history, was guided by a concern with “narrative.” Stories, in her view, allow us to make sense of our lives and world — though not infrequently these stories are myths, comforting fictions liable to crack.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Ms. Didion wrote in the title essay for “The White Album.” She added: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

“Or at least we do for a while.”

Correction: A photo caption with a previous version of this article carried an incorrect credit, using information from the Associated Press. The picture, of Ms. Didion in 1977, was taken by Mary Lloyd Estrin, not the AP. The article has been corrected.