The White Album
by Joan Didion
Open Road Media, 2017
(Originally published by Simon & Schuster, 1979)
[ #1 — 3rd Year, 23rd Letter: A book whose title begins with the letter W) ]
When I first made up my reading list at the start of the year I hadn’t decided on a candidate for the letter W, so I left it open. But a few months later Amazon Prime decided for me, because one of the free monthly downloads was Joan Didion’s The White Album. I’d heard a lot of things about it so I decided to give it a go.
This was a book that came with a lot of baggage and speculation on my part. I remember when it first came out (I was in high school) because I read about it in The New York Times Book Review, which my elderly uncle faithfully brought over to us every Sunday along with the rest of the Times. Since the book had the same title as The Beatles album I assumed the essays were all about the turmoil of the 1960s. Well, the first one in the book was, but the others ranged from that time up to the mid-1970s and were about Vietnam, architecture, infrastructure, and Hollywood. Wide-ranging, but the focus was on California.
But not California’s youth culture. Didion was born in 1934 so she was in her 30s when the decade began and wasn’t inclined to find resonance with drugs, sex, and rock and roll, only unease and a vague horror. I can guess for someone whose life had gone swimmingly until then, with hard work begetting success and that success buoyed by American society running smoothly, the likes of Charles Manson and campus shootings would have been a true shock, though frankly they pale compared to subsequent news events in the 2000s and beyond.
So the age of the book, and the long lens of the 2020s, didn’t allow me to find resonance with it either. Some of the essays were almost indecipherable, like one about feminism that was extremely dated, and another about the introduction of commuter lanes, called then “Diamond Lanes,” to the city of Los Angeles. As a writer she took great pains to be neutral, but I can sense her irritation at the idea, and she came across as bitching about a whole lot of nothing. The joke turned out to be on her, as today commuter lanes are alive and kicking.
Other essays were more timeless, or if dated, interesting slices of life back then. Like an essay on California infrastructure — that of water and electricity and how it is portioned out in the American West — and her personal experiences dealing with migraines, Malibu, and vacationing at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, now dwarfed by the megahotels that have been built up next to it on the shores of Waikiki. She could turn a phrase, and it was interesting to read the original, deadpan style that in turn influenced luminaries like Hunter S. Thompsen, Fran Leibowitz, Lester Bangs, even Joanna Russ.
But like all of those, I wound up getting impatient with her authorial voice. Very self-absorbed. I think I’d like her more autobiographical work though.