Sunday, December 09, 2018

South and West (2017)

It's tempting to get excited and jump up and down and want to compare Joan Didion's latest, some notebook writing from the '70s, with something like VU and Another View, the lost Velvet Underground albums that emerged in the mid-'80s. That might be overstating, but the key is that this is way good stuff, from arguably the peak of her writing powers, and with those powers on display. It's two separate sets of notes for pieces Didion never wrote, one from 1970 as she traveled the South, the other from 1976 in California, revolving around Patty Hearst. The first part, on the South, is much the bulk of the book and the best part too. The California stuff is more like a reprisal of her 2003 meditation on California, Where I Was From. But Joan Didion (and John Gregory Dunne) traveling the South in 1970 is priceless. All the book's blurbers want it to be a prescient look into America's future, which no one in 1970 expected. But all the cant and rhetoric of reflexive patriotism and instant dismissal of progressive ideas on moral grounds already lived in the South of 1970. It's probably more fair to say it never stopped living there in the first place. If anything, it was more raw back then. School integration is not just a fresh topic, but still ongoing. And the wearisome oppression of the South by political correctness is well underway. Natives, such as the white owner of a radio station in Meridian, Mississippi, that features black music, speak warily of racial issues, apparently trying to tone down the racism, apparently without knowing how to, leading to some tendency for an aggrieved defensive tone. At the same time it's also comically apparent that Didion's arrogance and "coastal elitism" (scare quotes) are just as much in play in these encounters, even through the screen of her own writing. Joan Didion is a bit of a name-dropper and usually haughty about food. She also reviews the swimming pools at the motels they stay in, a telltale preoccupation. It's possible that, in the editing, some of the Blue v. Red contrasts that define all American politics today and have reached such a toxic new crescendo with the rise of Donald Trump may have been sharpened for the sake of our era. Of course, these notebook passages are as crystalline as all Didion prose. She went to the South in 1970 looking for antecedents to the culture of the West, where so many Southerners moved after the Civil War. She contrasts the sense of the burden of history in the South with the attempt to erase history in the West. As usual, the greatest pleasures are in Didion's sharp, acerbic eye and ear for details. This book is too short, and somewhat uneven, but so were those lost Velvet Underground albums.

In case it's not at the library.

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