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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

The title essay of The White Album begins with one of Didion’s most well known and oft-quoted lines: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is an opening that signals a central theme of both this collection and much of Didion’s subsequent nonfiction. In distinguishing what she calls the “disparate images” of “actual experience” from the stories “we tell ourselves”—that is, those narratives that provide a certain coherence to experience—Didion sets out the terms for her exploration of the cultural and personal dissonance she finds in the social upheaval of the late 1960’s.

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As with her most important nonfiction, in “The White Album” Didion interweaves cultural analysis with threads of personal narrative, the one providing metaphors for the other. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis represents, for example, “a precise physio-logical equivalent” for what she experienced at the time as a breakdown in the social order. A psychiatric evaluation that describes her as failing to cope adequately with the world “does not now seem,” she writes, “an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

Didion also draws on cinematic metaphors: When she writes about “flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience,” it both suggests the failure of the old narratives and describes the shape of the essay itself. “The White Album” is about the breakdown of a certain kind of coherence, which Didion experiences as both cultural and personal, and her attempts to find new metaphors for that experience. The essay’s form, a collage, is sometimes read as a literal analogue for this breakdown.

The essay consists of fourteen segments, each separated by white space and each numbered. Some are whole vignettes; some reproduce pieces of conversation, juxtaposed and self-consciously out of chronological sequence. A number of the segments include excerpts of other texts: trial transcripts, Didion’s own psychiatric report, song lyrics from the rock group The Doors, and found texts such as a packing list from her closet door. Thematic threads are chopped, rearranged, and interwoven.

“The White Album” is Didion’s most accomplished, complex use of the collage form, but a number of other essays in The White Album also draw on the techniques of collage and montage, often being composed as a series of vignettes. Each of the four segments of “Quiet Days in Malibu,” for example, has to do with various unexpected sides of life in that Southern California beach community. In “Good Citizens,” Didion arranges three separate segments in a curious and ironic juxtaposition—one on the rhetoric and cast of liberal politics in Hollywood, one on Nancy Reagan when her husband was still the governor of California, and one on the 1970 national congress of the Junior Chambers of Commerce—with only the title to connect them. Each of the segments of “In the Islands,” identified by the year of each particular visit, is about a distinct feature of the geographical and psychic...

(The entire section contains 768 words.)

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