Pictures from an Expedition

The White Album

by Joan Didion
Simon and Schuster, 223 pp., $9.95

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…

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