Monday, September 12, 2011

Joan Didion's The White Album

I picked up Joan Didion's book The White Album after writing a piece on a new zine by Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force for Matchbook Magazine. The zine, a selection of essays comprised primarily by women in the East Coast publishing industry, centers around the notion of a Girl Crush. Jennifer Egan contributes a piece on infatuation in an all-girls Catholic School, Emma Straub discusses her love for Jennifer Egan, Sadie Stein writes about children's book author Tasha Tudor and Zan Romanoff sites Joan Didion as her GC.

"I wanted to go east and get cold. Of course, no one knows this better than Joan Didion. She loves the state as only its exiles can; she recognizes that California is a land for the stupid and beautiful and she knows that there is still a romance to it which, even if you are not stupid or beautiful, makes you wish you belong. I began to read her seriously in my own exile, a Connecticut dorm room, where she remade California into a land of words, a place I recognized for its splendor as well as its terrible power. Finally, here was a landscape so wholly encompassing that it had room for us all—even the pale neurotics, its shaky, withdrawn daughters." 

Pretty much anyone who graduated with an MFAin the past 30 years is required to site Didion as one of their influences. Thessaly, once told me that she thought it was because women identified with Didion. In Didion they saw themselves: shy, bookish, wall flower types, who found their strength in writing. 
Didion got her start in Vogue's Features Department. She published her first book, Run, River, while working there. Didion later worked for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and Esquire. Many of the pieces in The White Album have the same tone as the best DFW for Esquire pieces, a long form kind of interpretive journalism, where the hand of the author is deeply felt.  

Reading Didion's The White Album, an autobiographical homage to the 1960s, turns out to be a gratifying process. Each essay wraps up nicely in perfect philosophical packages. Nothing trails off here; there's no narrative bookend for sun rises or sun sets that leaves the reader wondering. We hear, frankly, in no uncertain terms, Didion's take.

On James Pike, an Episcopal Bishop, in James Pike, American 
"When the man who started out a winner was lying dead in the desert his brother-in-law joined the search party, and prayed for the assistance of God, Jim Jr., and Edgar Cayce. I think I have never heard a more poignant trinity." P.58

On Water Control In CA in Holy Water
"I had no further business in this room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still." P66

On the CA Governor's Mansion in Many Mansions
"It is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room It is the kind of house that has a refreshment center. It is the kind of house in which one does not live, but there is no way to say this without getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class. I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable." P72.
Didion in a famous interview with Tom Brokaw from the 1970's tells NBC that she sees her writing as the only place in her life where she can be aggressive. She goes on to talk about the total control she has as a writer. "It's the only aggressive act I have. It's the only way I can be aggressive. You're totally in control of this tiny tiny world, right near the typewriter. I'm comfortable in the kitchen. I'm comfortable cooking. I'm comfortable performing in a way. I'm comfortable doing something." I think a lot of people feel this way about writing. But it's the part that bothers me most about Didion. There's something "mean-girl" about her attitude that's discomfiting. 

I'm half way through the book and I'm already exhausted by her passing judgement on every single thing her piercing eye falls on. It's the literary equivalent of that insecure friend who flinches with disdain about your decision to pass on desert; the toxic friend (as Vogue might call it) who zones in on your unique moral discrepancies and uses them as cocktail fodder. Not everything need or should be open to precise analyzation. I can't help asking myself why can't Joan just be nicer, eh?

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