With a title echoing the unofficial title of an album that the Beatles recorded in 1968, The White Album comprises mainly essays previously published in some form in various magazines, with each essay showing Didion’s insight, precise diction, and ability to create powerful images.
The first part of The White Album is also called “The White Album” and includes only one essay, again called “The White Album” (1968-1978). That long essay is Didion’s fifteen-section, associational consideration of why she could not tell herself the stories she needed to survive, why she could not find a “narrative” to connect the images confronting her when she lived in Hollywood and pondered such events as the Manson gang’s murders, a recording session by the Doors, visits to Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and a student strike at San Francisco State.
The second part, “California Republic,” consists of seven shorter essays. The first of them, “James Pike, American” (1976), presents the late Episcopal bishop of California as a man of “mindless fervor” whose idea of reinventing the world was typical of the 1960’s in the United States. “Holy Water” (1977), the second of the essays, is Didion’s account of her fascination with the mass movement of water, especially in California. Among the other essays in this part, particularly notable is “Many Mansions” (1977), contrasting the new, sprawling, unoccupied...
In “The White Album,” the first essay of the collection, Joan Didion states her prime concern—U.S. national myths do not fit the facts of American lives. She states that there came a time when “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”
This long first essay begins with the description of her own experience with psychiatric examinations, with living in an old house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. The house was scheduled to be torn down; it was waiting for the wrecker’s ball. She records the bizarre testimony of two young men who had murdered the film star Ramon Navarro for no reason and describes her friendship with Linda Kasabian, who testified at the Manson trial. There were also the unfocused and almost friendly anti-Vietnam Black Panther demonstrations and a recording session with the Doors, who seemed to hardly know each other, and a mystifying interview with Eldridge Cleaver. None of these experiences held together to make a narrative of America in the years between 1966 and 1971, although this essay represents ten years of searching on Didion’s part.
All nineteen of these essays point up the gulf between the facts and what people make of them in order to tell themselves a story and thus give meaning to what they experience. Bishop James Pike of San Francisco is revealed as a man interested only in the show although myth would make a mystic of him when he disappeared into the desert. The...
Joan Didion’s literary reportage from the 1960’s and 1970’s holds a prominent place in New Journalism, whose advocates generally attempted to write with a more personal, idiosyncratic voice to record the phantasmagoria of life in post-1950’s America. New Journalism, however, was neither a school nor a movement.
Insofar as it concerns itself mostly with contemporaneous events, Didion’s prose could be called traditional journalism, but the similarity ends here. Her crystalline style and practiced eye for allegorical detail, her ear for dialogue, her delineation of character and fact, and her affinity for irony lend Didion’s cinematic narratives a kind of absurdist sheen. The White Album is a follow-up to her book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and collects previously published magazine articles. On the whole, the period pieces in The White Album form a melancholy coda to the selected fragments of a bygone time. In 2006, this book was included in an omnibus edition of her work called We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction.
In the opening title essay (named for the Beatle’s record album), Didion offers an anguished glimpse of her life in California from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s to give the reader an intimate framework for the stories and reports that follow. Her physical and psychological problems mirror the social and political disintegration conveyed through local stories and happenings that are juxtaposed with bulletins on political events, war, and mass murder. Underlying this framework is Didion’s apprehension that narrative is no longer capable of giving order and meaningful shape (“intelligibility”) to personal or collective experience. For Didion, this threatened lapse into aesthetic incoherence has ethical and moral implications. Despite the potential for anomic circumstances to overwhelm her ability to find and convey significance, Didion manages in The White Album to decode the edgy signs and symbols from that era.
In the second section of TheWhite Album, “California Republic,” Didion depicts her native state as a theater of simulacra. A biographical note about a former Roman Catholic bishop of California, James Pike, is evoked by a cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Pike’s weird contradictions and even stranger death in the Jordanian desert serve as a metaphor for the American style of aggressive self-reinvention and abrupt endings. Didion’s preoccupation with California’s waterworks, in “Holy Water,” demonstrates her ability to personalize facts and reveal hidden bureaucratic processes. Here, the essay form is used to localize narrative and create psychic stability from facts. She writes in a similar vein on the management of California’s freeway system by the state’s transportation department, better known as Caltrans, in which readers learn that...