Sunday, July 11, 2010

The White Album (1979)

Named for the Beatles album that does not actually bear the name, about which it is anyway entirely silent, this may well be Joan Didion's single best book. In many ways it plays like the album, or certainly side 4, an ostensible collection of essays that of themselves stand only arbitrarily as discrete units, often composed rather of fragments only tangentially related to anything but a brooding sense of "the '60s," a concept forever maddeningly just out of reach. The title piece, for example, which opens the book, runs on for some 40 pages, touching on southern California life, rental homes, mental illness, serial killers and the ubiquitous dread of a knock on the door, the old Hollywood, the Doors, Huey Newton's health plan, strategies for gaining access to Eldridge Cleaver, traveling tips, Ezra Pound, campus unrest at San Francisco State College, "Wichita Lineman," Linda Kasabian, synchronicity writ intimate, and the afterlife according to the manager of a motel in Pendleton, Oregon, a Mormon. Elsewhere, Didion attempts to establish the distance she's incapable of in regard to her homeland, California, about which she remains endlessly fascinated in spite of herself. She examines women and the women's movement through the lenses, implicitly, of Doris Lessing and Georgia O'Keefe (the latter reminding of Didion's sincere regard and esteem for John Wayne both as an icon and as a human being). She travels to Hawaii, Colombia (foreshadowing some of her best '80s work), and the Hoover Dam. She attempts to explain the movie industry, authoritatively, from the inside. She apologetically breaks down the marketing physics of shopping malls. She takes to her bed with migraine headaches. If this is not her best book it's certainly the beginning of a string of them that continues to impress, and an excellent starting point for anyone interested in her. The cryptic, elliptical style is first perfected here, the compression and almost poetic precision of her elegant language, the constant nagging sense of dread balanced by continual attempts at irony that are understood always as insufficient and vain even in the act of making them, and the eternal yearning to make some kind of sense, any kind of sense, of this baffling kaleidoscope of American culture—inside of and beyond "the '60s," which haunt her.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

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