The White Album
Some of Joan Didion’s nonfiction would scarcely fill up the back columns of an airlines magazine. Altogether it does not have much bulk. She has many followers, though, for these occasional pieces. She has mastered the art of direct address without being trivial or colloquial. One wants to know what she has to say, even if it means tracking down a copy of New West or Travel & Leisure. One wants to read her spare, elegant prose and her flinty humor or just check in, get the annual Christmas letter. Whatever the topic of Didion’s comment or reportage, she works in bulletins on other things as well, a houseful of emotional furniture, recognizable from the past she has told her readers about. There are the sheets and towels, the freeways, the rattlesnakes, the swimming pools, the old bikinis, the toasters, Waikiki Beach, the desert, the Donner Pass. There is Joan herself: the shy but dogged party-goer, the profuse weeper, the gambling lady, or the mistress of the meticulous kitchen who sometimes seems to be in a literary bake-off with Mary McCarthy.
Another list could be made: Didion the clear, sophisticated reporter, the colorist of panic and depression, the lifeguard patrolling the seas of exploitation and menace. Or the woman who loves children and who may even believe the old religious adage that they are guests in the house.
In some ways The White Album is a continuation of Didion’s first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968. Most of the sturdy supporting cast is back—the down-to-earth daughter, the patient husband, the ancestor who did some surveying around the Donner Pass. Only the cynical former lover, who also shadows Didion’s novels, is gone. But then Didion has changed some in the last ten years. She is tougher, less indulgent of herself and others, and she is also funnier.
If she has a heroine now, it is Georgia O’Keeffe. There are barely five pages about her, but the admiration that pervades them is almost militant. They contain one of those thundering Didion italics, similar to Slouching Towards Bethlehem’s “writers are always selling someone out.” A picture in an exhibition of O’Keeffe in Chicago prompts “style is character“:
…that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet, that every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character.
Didion loves O’Keeffe’s “astonishingly aggressive paintings” and the fact that she is hard. Didion thinks that that “has not been in our century a quality much admired in women…. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.”
Those are terms that Didion would like to fight on. She has a hardy sense of herself, and the pronoun is important. One suspects that she enjoys being a woman and likes other women who do. Her O’Keeffe essay trails off into a charming anecdote that the painter wrote about the walks that she and her sister used to take when they were girls in Texas. “That evening star fascinated me. It was in some ways very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground.” Didion’s interest is compelled as much by the markswoman as by the stargazer and perhaps most of all by the aura of a frontier, the instinctive boldness of the scene.
Hardness, the refusal to play with a handicap advantage, gives this book a good deal of its authority and energy. It also accounts for the rare lapses into callousness, notably in a harangue called “The Women’s Movement.” The trouble with activists, it seems, is that they are politically naïve and pretty dumb altogether. They fail to see that the ideas behind the movement are Marxist. They rush in to play the role of the proletariat, not a part played by any American group longer than absolutely necessary, just when the country has run out of available minorities.
It is fair to attack mercilessly with words, but Didion’s choices of target make some disagreeable reading. Why trot out Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s asinine advice to mothers: “Portions of any fairy tale or children’s story can be salvaged during a critique session with your child.” Why resurrect Alix Kates Shulman’s dopey marriage contract with its jigsaw puzzle weekly chore schedules? Well, it can be argued, because they so badly lack intelligence, imagination, or common sense. But they are only thread-bare documents of the movement, which Didion never engages seriously. Instead she gets lofty, speaking of “those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities.” Most unsparing of all, she gets out the weapon she wields better than most members of either sex—style:
All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.
One can almost hear Hemingway cheering her on.
It should be added that her tantrum comes out of a kind of innocence, emotionally at least, because, in her way, she tends to be unquestioning and content in her sexual identity. There is a wisp of a piece about a book promotion tour she took with her daughter, traveling first class, and finding that often all their fellow travelers were businessmen. So that’s how they pass their lives! “I apprehended for the first time those particular illusions of mobility which power American business. Time was money. Motion was progress. Decisions were snap and ministrations of other people were constant. Room service, for example, assumed paramount importance…. We wanted to stay on the road forever.” But they do not. Having taken the situation in, they return to domesticity without envy, perspective secure, home from an alien world.
Didion’s trips are usually of a different nature. There is less conventional reporting in The White Album than in Slouching Towards Bethelehem, but there are some strange, vivid explorations, which might be called obsessive journalism, much of it sharp and daffily amusing. There is, for example, Didion’s reverence for water, which, as she says, takes the form of meditation on where her water is:
The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River…. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and…I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.
Pipes. Siphons. Pumps, forebays, afterbays, weirs, drains, “plumbing on the grand scale”—she swims in it. She could walk into the twenty-third chapter of Ulysses and sit right down and talk the night away with Bloom. (“Did it flow? Yes, from Roundwood reservoir in County Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filtre mains of single and double pipage….”)
The itinerary of one’s drinking water is not casual information. Didion’s account of her visit to the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project in Sacramento is a confluence of awe, accuracy, and a willingness to appear eccentric, if not foolish, in print. So is a shorter essay on the Hoover Dam.
On another trip Didion follows one of her well-known obsessions: driving Los Angeles freeways. Jerry Brown’s “Diamond Lanes,” designed to promote carpools and the use of buses, boiled every drop of Didion’s individualistic, conservative, pioneer blood. These obscene, yellow graffiti vandalized the Santa Monica Freeway, which has “what connoisseurs of freeways concede to be the most beautiful access ramps in the world.” Driving a freeway properly, as Maria did so well and so often in Play It As It Lays, means “a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis.” The traffic authority, Caltrans, got a visit from Didion because it had turned the Santa Monica into a “16.2-mile parking lot.” Alas, it is a confrontation that she loses. The bureaucrat, up to her mouth in a Beckett-like mound of officialese, tells Didion: “All this project requires is a certain rearrangement of people’s daily planning. That’s really all we want.” Didion says, “It occurred to me that a certain rearrangement of people’s daily planning might seem, in a less rarefied air than is breathed [at Caltrans], rather a great deal to want.”
What Didion would herself want, one suspects, is to find a way to tell people how to live. In all her writing there are certitudes on morals, manners, and society. There are also confessions of flaws and failures, of panic and vertigo suffered when the outline of an ordered life blurred or faded completely. It is this Joan Didion who has become a glyph in literary shorthand, representing the ability to describe both the suffering of depression and the anatomical nature of a psychic wound. It is not totally unrelated that she can also convey a vision of roots, of home—a well-run house with spacious, airy rooms, a fastidious kitchen, a place inhabited by people who have tact and sympathy and who read stories (unbowdlerized) to their children.
Houses and what happens in them are impossible to separate in all Didion’s work, fiction and nonfiction. In The White Album she visits the vacant California governor’s mansion and is shocked into a frank acknowledgment of snobbery. A wet bar in the living room. A refreshment center. A bidet. “I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable,” she concludes. A seemlier mansion is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, where, her friends tell her, she spends an eccentric amount of time and apparently has since her girlhood. It is a redoubt of wealth and grace, where the beach is enclosed and people watch over each other’s children, where the author can wear her voile beach robe and pore over scrapbooks that have pictures of Mellons and Gettys wintering at the Royal.
In “Goodbye to All That,” the poignant essay that ends Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion writes of the beginning of a bad emotional crisis. She broke off a bad love affair, married a man who had been her friend, and ended her New York life, a city she loved, and moved to California. There was nothing much to move. The rest of the mental slide took place in Los Angeles, specifically in a rambling house on Franklin Avenue. It was located in what a friend called “a senseless-killing neighborhood.” It was an area of transience; landlords were waiting out an expected change in zoning laws that would allow the building of high-rise apartments. Synanon was next door. Rock groups camped out in ramshackle houses. The lives of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were apparently random too: “I knew where the sheets and towels were kept but I did not always know who was sleeping in every bed.”
The house on Franklin Avenue is the anchor for the long title essay, “The White Album.” It is about losing connections, the script of life. (Perversely, Didion leaves out a connection for the reader. The White Album is a Beatles record, released in 1968. It was almost the last time the four really worked together, and the fragmentation of the group, the collisions of spirit and explosions in different directions, are apparent in it. The White Album was also a kind of catechism for Manson and his followers. The title of a song from it, “Helter Skelter,” was written in blood on the refrigerator at the La Bianca house after the massacre.) When in June, 1968, Didion suffered an attack of vertigo and nausea, a Rorschach test showed “a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses.” The Thematic Apperception Test reported the patient’s “pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world…. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.”
In retrospect, she thinks, vertigo and nausea were not really abnormal responses to the summer of 1968, when Robert Kennedy was shot, or to the summer of 1969, when the Sharon Tate murders occurred. Looking for subjects and people to report and write about, she found no lack of strangeness, conflict, or deviousness. She examined the transcript of the trial of two young toughs who killed Ramon Novarro, the actor. She interviewed Huey Newton and saw how he was being used by the Black Panthers. She went to San Francisco State, where the student revolutionaries and the liberal faculty were busy using each other, plotting together about how to manipulate “the media.” Waugh, she thinks, would have been the ideal observer of this buzzing activity: “Waugh was good at scenes of industrious self-delusion, scenes of people absorbed in odd games.”
All these vignettes are wonderfully reported. And “The White Album” will probably last as an important comment on the Sixties, one that is both critical and personal, even at times lyrical. Didion’s Franklin Avenue friends think that the decade ended with the Tate murders—or as Didion calls them, the Cielo Drive murders, always preferring to identify by place if possible. To her the Sixties ended in 1971 when she moved away, to a house on the ocean in North Malibu. “Quiet Days in Malibu” is the last essay in the book, and though less rigorous and ambitious than “The White Album,” it has a gentleness and intimacy found more often in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Again, Didion, longing for home and serenity, managed to locate a dangerous spot: rattlers, landslides, floods, fires. She is never happier in her house than when nature has isolated her there.
This life ended abruptly in the fire season last year. “Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot,…birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike.” It did not happen to Didion’s house, although the fire came close. The Dunnes moved back into Los Angeles, and so this book, like the first one, ends in disruption, with the prospect, or so one hopes, of another house to be written about, and more reporting, both serious and eccentric. The essays in The White Album cover ten years and in some ways they are better than her fiction, because in her novels she submerges her own voice.