Today I was the keynote speaker for a ceremony to kick of The city of Malibu's One City, One Book program, in which the city is "assigned" a single book to read and ponder. This year it's Joan Didion's The White Album. Here's the speech if you're inclined (excuse the typos and such - because this was meant to be read aloud, I've not cleaned it up for reading:)
I remember when I first read The White Album. I was a freshman at USC, and I had been told by more than a few literate Angelinos that I must read Joan Didion’s book if I wanted to understand what Southern California was really all about. So I did.
It scared the heck out of me.
Why? Simple, really: Didion’s version of the West didn’t square with all of the myths I held dear about the place. I was a 70’s New York kid who worshipped the Beach Boys and watched Endless Summer, dreaming that golden SoCal dream. Which was why I chose USC to begin with. Now, here was Didion telling me that everything I thought I knew about California was wrong. And the thing was, she was right.
The title alone was a tip-off. Naming a book after the Beatles album from which Charles Manson found grisly inspiration did not bode well for some optimistic treatise on the great California pleasure principle of sun and sand that had become a kind of global short-hand for the good life.
Instead, Didion articulated in the White Album’s 20 essays what writer Mike Davis would classify years later as the “sunshine noir” dialectic of California culture, the dark undertow that was constantly tugging and straining against the idealized version of the placewhich had been hammered in our brains through a steady stream of media stereotypes.
It’s important to note however that Didion, a native of Sacramento who received her BA in English at Cal and moved to Los Angeles with her husband John Gregory Dunne in 1966, had always had a strong affection for the West.
Her Western roots ran deep, as her ancestors had migrated to the region from points south and Midwest in the nineteenth century.
Growing up in Sacramento Didion, the daughter of an Air Force Officer and a homemaker, heard stories of her kin and their struggles to tame the unsettled territory of California. But by the late forties, it seemed to Didion that the stories she been told -- of the crystalline rivers and majestic farmland -- had already been supplanted by a new narrative of unchecked corporate development. The boomtown mentality co-existed with the old agrarian culture in ways that gave Didion intimations of the impermanence of things in California.
Still, the lure of the ocean was eternal and Didion wasn’t immune to it. Southern California in the 60’s was supposed to provide the template for new ways of living. It was going to be free love and endless amounts of drugs that would open up new modes of consciousness and bring about some all-in-one mind-meld that would banish crime and war and cynical politics. But for Didion, Los Angeles was a social experiment that failed. There were many reasons why this was so, some of which were laid out in her first book of essays, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and then in 1979’s The White Album.
Among the many piercing flashes of insight to be found in The White Album’s essays, many of which were written between 1968 and 1979 for publications like Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review, is one overarching fact of L.A. life – that it exists on a very slippery foundation. Here was an arid desert landscape adjacent to the Pacific that received its water over 200 miles away from the Central Valley, that built its houses on an active seismic fault, that was prone to brush fires, flooding and earthquakes. It was a city in denial of its own instability.
This hard fact of LA life co-existed uneasily with Didion’s own psychic instability, which she chronicles in these essays with often brutal candor. I think that’s why The White Album has resonated with so many for so long –
we’re made to feel an ally in her struggle to maintain her equipoise amid the maelstrom of a social upheaval.
Right up front on page 14, she shows us her psychiatric profile as rendered by St. John’s Hospital, who monitored the writer after she suffered a panic attack in 1968. She is, according to this report, prone to a “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her.” She surmises correctly that a fatalistic worldview was not an inappropriate response to 1968, a year when the country was engaged in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and light.
But it was more than just the events of that darkest year of the sixties that gave Didion intimations of impending doom. She understood what so many failed to grasp about Los Angeles, especially all of those outsiders who migrate here seeking eternal good health, good weather and untold riches: That life here tends to be about as stable as mercury on glass, and therefore not prone to snug feelings of security and safety.
When that fragility rubbed up against the very powerful myth of Manifest Destiny, Summer of Love style – that is, of living out some edenic version of unfettered freedom in the West - you had a very combustible sitaiotn to contend with. This is what Didion writes about so perceptively in The White Album.
Suffice it to say, this was not to trendiest approach to 60’s culture for a young writer to take. Contrast Didion’s bleak, complex world-view with Tom Wolfe’s, a New York-based journalist who looked upon the cultural movements of the West with somewhat more optimism and less cynicism. Didion had witnessed a lot of ugliness while gathering the material for the 20 essays that appear in the White Album, and existential dread would be her default mode.
The book kicks off with that famous lede: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” One could substitute ‘survive’ for ‘live’ in that sentence, I think. According to Didion, we try to impose meaning upon events that appear to be senseless or without internal logic; we try to rationalize the irrational to console ourselves.
To be sure, she certainly tries. She goes on a little later in the essay: “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.”
That was no easy task. By the late sixties, the era’s promise of social change had devolved into open warfare that was both rhetorical and wantonly violent, and the White Album is, among other things, about Didion’s struggle to impose a straight narrative line upon this mad, swirling carnival of American culture at the breaking point, with all of its attendant violence and mayhem. Of trying, in other words, to come to grips with disorder.
One feels Didion’s endless frustration with her incapacity to “play her role as if she had the script,” as she moves through the events in the book. Her interview subjects, many of them key players in this madness, seem to exist behind an opaque scrim of self-mythology – Self-mythologizing being a key career move in those days.
When she encounters Black Panther Huey Newton at the Alameda County Courthouse and tries to get him to speak openly about himself and the charge of manslaughter that has been brought against him, he ladles out well-rehearsed slogans about black nationalism. A campus shutdown at San Francisco State is a pointless exersize in empty sloganeering on all sides. “Disorder,” she writes, “became (becomes) its own point.” A frustrating turn of events indeed for a writer who craved control.
In her cultural essays, there is a simmering, slow-to-boil paranoia present, which Didion attributes to a disconnect between what people are feeling and what really weighs on their minds.
Perhaps that accounts for the chaotic nature of California life in the late sixties; Didion believes it has something to do with the way no one addresses things as they really are; that blissed-out hippie equanimity is an evasion from reality.
It may also be why she prized her life in Malibu, where she moved with her family in 1968 and stayed until 1976. At least this community was bound together by a mutual understanding that the place in which they lived was in many respects inhospitable to serene domestic life. Living in Malibu made Didion feel like some beachcombing homesteader, claiming her small piece of real estate on pch and girding it from harm. “I think now,” she writes in the essay ‘Quiet Days in Malibu,’
“that I never loved the house on Pacific Coast Highway more than on those many days when it was impossible to leave it, when fire or flood had in fact closed the highway.”
Here’s another thing that struck me upon first reading the White Album. Didion’s rather eccentric choice of subject matter. Water? Dams? Freeways? But these geographic essays are consistent with her thesis about the great effort expended in trying to impose some control on a vast and unruly landscape. Even the largest public works agencies in America couldn’t do it. At the time that Didion wrote Bureaucrats, her piece about Caltrans, it just so happened that the transportation agency was installing diamond lanes in an attempt to loosen up gridlock. “Of course, the political decision was in the name of the greater good,’ she writes. “the only effect so far had been to disrupt traffic through the Los Angeles basin, triple the number of daily accidents on the Santa Monica, prompt the initiation of two lawsuits against Caltrans, and cause large numbers of Los Angeles county residents to behave, most uncharacteristically, as an ignited and conscious proletariat.”
To be sure, Didion is no Norman Mailer type. There were plenty of fiery polemicists to go around in those days, and though Didion offers up sharp opinions in The White Album, especially about the women’s movement and Hollywood liberals, she avoids easy positions. I think that’s why the book has enduring appeal twenty seven years after its publication. We appreciate the way she grapples with issues right on the page, because her ambivalence is ours, too.
Her essays Holy Water and At The Dam explore, with a fair share of wonder, the way water, the very lifeblood of Southern California, is sluiced, channeled, stored and released. Didion is not ready to side with the environmentalists, and criticize the building of enormous walls in front of rivers,
or the transfer of water from its natural habit in the Owens Valley 200 miles away to L.A. She appreciates the link between the Rube Goldberg-ian water works and California civility and comfort.
In her 1977 essay Many Mansions, Didion tours the new 12,000 square foot dream house in Sacramento that Governor Reagan and his wife Nancy have designed. It is, in Didion’s view, a metaphor for a new era of wretched excess and faux-finish plasticity. “The walls resemble local adobe, but they are not,” Didion writes. “They are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowing cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams ‘resemble’ native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.’
Here’s Didion anticipating an incipient trend; This house might well be the archetype for the California McMansions of the future.
You can’t discuss Joan Didion’s work without commenting on her writing style, because there’s something mysterious about how she does it. She’s a deceptively simple prose stylist of considerable dramatic power. Didion is always striving for a clear and uninflected rhythm, just like her literary hero Ernest Hemingway, always making every word count. There’s nothing extraneous in these essays, and that sharply honed style gives her words an incantatory power, a capacity to mesmerize the reader.
Certain images just stay with you, like this one from Many Mansions: “The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.”
And this, the closing sentence of her rumination on the Hoover dam: “Of course this was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” There’s sad poetry in those sentences.
Re-reading the book, it’s hard to feel optimistic about things having changed much for the good in L.A. New social issues – larger, more intractable issues – have supplanted the ones Didion wrote about. And Malibu still struggles with the capricious elements. But this region is remarkably resilient to change and has the capacity to adapt to whatever is thrown its way. So Didion, with The White Album, has given us a gift – a Baedeker to a state that’s as complicated and culturally rich as most countries, charged with an undercurrent of menace that always lies in wait, but also prone to unexpected moments of grace. All newcomers should be handed a copy of this book when they arrive. Just like I was at USC, 23 years ago.