NOVEMBER 23, 2020
In the weeks leading up to this year’s election, as the nation reeled from the devastation of the pandemic and reckoned with the injustices exposed by BLM, I turned to Joan Didion’s classic 1979 collection of essays, The White Album. I was a Didion virgin, my brain not yet sullied by what was to come. And it was pure luck that I chose this text, picking it out at random in a sour-smelling second-hand bookstore. As a young woman residing in California, I was living out what Didion depicts as the trite and uninspiring “college girl’s dream”: “I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing. ” For my part, though, I could never leave Los Angeles, for I am much too dependent on the warm weather and the freedom to zoom around in my little white convertible, conquering man-made freeways. Yet I thought it good and proper to develop my writerly thinking, to hone a more critical eye such as Didion’s. I am, by nature, more inclined to model myself after Eve Babtiz’s LA woman.
In the aftermath of the 1960s turmoil, Didion has no desire to impart encouraging words on the future of feminism or liberalism. She knows too well the persistence of entrenched power, the conservative pull of Americana. In fact, she chooses to embrace certain American ideals, adopting an up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Her writing is unnerving and at times detachedly cold. Didion sneers at Hollywood, at feminists, at Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. Yet despite her disdain for those icons, she adores others, like Georgia O’Keefe, whom she regards as a “straight-shooter,” a term of unique praise in The White Album.
In this text, all the idealism of the sixties vanishes, the ethereal magic of the night is violently interrupted as the dull lights signal last call. Didion’s personal acquaintance with Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski places her close to the front row at the decade’s revolting final reveal, the Manson Family murders. It is disturbing to see all the themes bound up in that disaster — self-delusion, cultish devotion to evil, racial tension, media sensationalism — still wreaking havoc today. Are the commonplace Twitter activism and continuous parade of op-eds from the past four years bound to be lost and forgotten, much like the futile moralistic hand wringing of yesteryear?
That said, at some points in the book, I found myself longing for Didion’s era of cool misery and “marijuana cigarettes.” She makes it seem so happening, yet so self-contained. But then I force myself to think of the messy reality of Kent State and Vietnam and Nixon and even of Didion’s own family life. Decades, years, moments cannot be tied off with neat bows. Perhaps the most poignant passage in White Album occurs in “In the Islands,” in which Didion chronicles her voyage to Hawaii — a last ditch effort to repair her marriage:
I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. […] In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.
In the midst of chaos, she seems to evoke, almost to become, a calm goddess of destruction, Kali or perhaps Eris. Her ability to concentrate and to discern is heightened — an instinctual means of staying alert to potential threats. I suspect that here Didion, for all her troubles, is experiencing creative bliss, and it is in such moments that I too experience it most keenly. Now, as our own tumultuous year comes to an end, I wonder: does chaos bring the possibility of systemic change, or is it the permanent state of things? Didion subscribes to dice theory, the notion that a gambler’s know-how can wrest order from random chance. She crafts stories for that very purpose, in order to live.
Violet Ames is a writer, photographer, and general noisemaker residing in Los Angeles. Texas-bred, she graduated from the University of Southern California in 2020 with a B.A. in Narrative Studies, having also minored in Photography. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times.