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 The White 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...
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