The White Album
Joan Didion – The White Album
When ‘The White Album’ was finally brought to stage by the director Lars Jan and the Early Morning Opera, it was after almost eight years of trying to obtain the rights. Didion was promised that the first essay (which shares its title with the book) would be performed from the infamous ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ to the last word, as it is. In my 4th Estate paperback it is 36 pages of fragmented monologue, which Lars Jan sees as a masterpiece not to be meddled with.
What might seem excessive is in fact only reasonable. There is no plot, the narrative is broken into a collage of impressions and facts, and it isn’t the center, but only Didion’s voice holding it together. However, this collage plays differently from one in her latest book ‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean’ which was compiled to showcase her work ranging from 1968 to 2000. In ‘The White Album’ the timespan is indicative and revelatory – Joan is writing about the 60s in America, about the time when she was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year” and yet her life and marriage were falling apart. About the years when she called herself a functioning member of society – writing a couple of times a month for magazines, publishing two books, working on several motion pictures, raising a small child, and putting ‘lentils to soak on Saturday night for lentil soup on Sunday’ – and yet her psychiatric report unabashedly shared with us emphasizes ‘her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her.’ A view of a world of people ‘moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure…’
This sounds positively pessimistic, and yet who would feel differently after seeing ’ship-in Vietnam’ burials in Honolulu? Who wouldn’t think about ‘devious motivations’ when buying a dress in I. Magnin in Beverly Hills for Linda Kasabian to wear to her testimony about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house? Would you not consider the women’s movement poorly comprehended if most of the representatives of the movement you knew flipped its ideals into resentment for ‘dogwork’ (i.e. cooking meals, doing laundry, taking care of small children) and leave such dogwork behind to go to New-York to become this famous writer or that gifted potter.
Joan Didion is a harsh and impassioned critic of what she sees, and as a reporter for Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books she saw a lot. When her inquisitive gaze turns to the official residence for governors of California, built by Ronald and Nancy Reagan in ‘Many Mansions’, we are left in no doubt that the reason behind a former governor, Ronald Reagan, spending 1.4 million dollars to build a mansion with a wet bar, a refreshment center, a bidet, and a view of a swimming pool from the bedrooom, in which the succeeding governor, Jerry Brown, refuses to live – instead paying $275 a month out of his own pocket for a rental with a mattress on the floor – is due to ‘inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class.’
When she went to the San Francisco State College to witness ‘the revolution being made’, she couldn’t make sense of the atmosphere where’ disorder made its own point’ and ‘the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy about college life.’ Apart from the black militants, everyone else seemed to be using the events as a welcome distraction from academic routine and university administration was benevolently looking down at confrontations as something beneficial, to get things moving, to get problems addressed and plans implemented. ‘Living like revolutionaries’ looked quite amiable to Didion.
The essay ‘Holy Water’ shares reverence for water that could only live in someone from the ‘arid part of the world’ which California, despite what you imagine looking at Hollywood swimming pools, is. Joan has ‘an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale.’ She falls asleep imagining the waterfall at Churchill Falls. She dreams of running the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project, which moves water around California, collected in the granite keeps of the Sierra Nevada and stored behind the Oroville Dam. But it’s the Hoover Dam she comes back to in her thoughts the most. The first of the great high dams, the brightest promise of American engineering, with its date of dedication fixed forever in a marble star map, for those who can read the stars. Because the stars and the dam will be there when we no longer are.
Just like that all I’m craving tonight is a drink. Preferably with an umbrella in it.
‘Dinner with a Book’ is a new Londnr feature created & written by book blogger, Yelena from Foliovore.