Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy 80th Birthday, Joan Didion -- On "The White Album"

It's Joan Didion's 80th birthday today and, as it happens, I've spent the last few weeks reading and rereading her essays. My Didion phase came about thanks to that controversial Theater Pub column I wrote, in which I combined analytical criticism and more personal confessions—and then, in the comments section, was criticized for my "heightened emotional state and hypersensitivity." (The implication being that I was crazy or hysterical. It was even suggested that "the full moon" was to blame for my emotional response!) Not to sound like an egomaniac, but it struck me that this whole experience was somewhat Didion-esque. After all, she's the model for young female writers who want to blend cool analysis with descriptions of their obsessive thoughts, feelings of doom, and moments when they've burst out crying; and she's received both praise and criticism for it. As I craved some reassurance that this style of writing is both valuable and powerful, I picked up a copy of The White Album.

The White Album: EssaysThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy Joan Didion's first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but in The White Album she seems to come even more fully into her unique voice and style. And, while these essays are products of the '60s and '70s, their insights frequently had me nodding my 21st-century head in recognition. Whenever I see one of the beautiful old Victorian houses in my city gutted and re-built with an "open floor plan" and "luxury finishes," I'll be tempted to quote Didion's deliciously snarky words about the ranch-style house that Ronald Reagan built to serve as the new California governor's mansion: "It is a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently 'democratic,' flattened out, mediocre and 'open' and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn." But just when you think that Didion is composed entirely of acid, she displays a more vulnerable side, praising Victorian houses where you can imagine "writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner."

There is great vehemence, great passion in Didion, and you get the sense that her writing is the way she lets it out. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she describes herself as "so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." In life, Didion may be a quiet, petite woman, but on the page, she can indulge in power-tripping fantasies of building shopping malls or controlling California's water system or mastering a difficult exit on the Santa Monica Freeway. Those aren't things that I've ever thought about doing, but Didion's passion is infectious, and she makes me want to do them, too.

Be it freeways, waterworks, shopping malls, Hollywood, or the women's movement, Didion is always trying to figure out and explain how the system works. Or how new systems replace the old ones but often replicate their same failures and blind spots (this, in a nutshell, is her rather damning indictment of second-wave feminism). She's skeptical of trends and received ideas, and rather aloof toward humanity as a whole; she admires the Getty Villa's antiquities collection for demonstrating that "not much changes. We were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were."

Speaking of systems, the famous opening line of the famous opening essay, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," basically acknowledges that an essay is itself a system, a way of deriving meaning and order from a series of images or events. Didion's blessing, and her curse, was to be a writer of probing intelligence in a place and time (the late '60s in Los Angeles) when all the systems seemed to be collapsing. Always frank, sometimes frightening, occasionally fragmented, The White Album is the result.

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