Joan Didion

The journalist who invented impersonal personality.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Charlie Powell

Joan Didion devotees may be disappointed that her long-awaited new book, Where I Was From, is not, in spite of its title, a memoir. Or rather, it may be her version of a memoir—dazzling, theatrical, dense—but when it comes down to it, a book with very little of her life in it. The publishing materials refer to Where I Was From as “deeply and intensely personal,” and yet what is striking is how impersonal the book actually is.

Since the publication of The White Albumand Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion has been celebrated as one of America’s leading practitioners of a new kind of highly wrought personal journalism. In the New York Observer, Susan Faludi claimed that Didion taught a generation of writers how to make journalism “a personal expression.” And Martin Amis characterized her style as “self-revealing” in an essay in which he went on to call her “a human being who managed to gauge another book out of herself rather than a writer who gets her living done on the side.” But has her writing ever been that immediate, that personal, that raw? Has her confessional style ever been much more than just that—a style?

Didion seems at first glance to be revealing so much about herself because she makes great use of her mental fragility. Certain temperamental qualities of hers—her paranoia, her morbid sense of impending disaster, and her distrust of all stated realities—were particularly suited to the ‘60s and ‘70s. Take the moment in The White Album when she writes about the “attack of nausea and vertigo” that led her to a psychiatric clinic. On the surface, this might seem like an intimate revelation about her inner life. And yet she ends the passage with, “such an attack does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” This is typical Didion. It’s as if her body were a finely tuned instrument for channeling the jittery mood of the country in flux. Her sense of doom, of highly calibrated alarm, is always in the service of some larger point; her stunned disbelief is always a commentary, on the times, on a murder, on the water supply, on Hawaii, on the bewildering state of California. It is never simply emotion for the sake of emotion. There is no pleasure in frankly exhibitionistic exposure; there is none of the blinkered narcissism of some of our more recent personal writing.

If there is a great deal of personality in her essays, there is very little that is personal. Even in her most superficially revealing essays, like her much-beloved “Goodbye to All That,” autobiographical facts give way to typologies. Her crying in Chinese laundries becomes “what it’s like to be young in New York.” New York becomes “an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.” In the end, for all the spare, vivid details about her walking down the street peering into the windows of brownstones, about drinking gazpacho when she is hung-over, the essay is about moving to New York and about being young—not about Joan Didion moving to New York and being young. This is, in many ways, her gift: She leaves space for thousands of similarly disaffected readers to enter her prose and passionately identify with it.

Her stylistic tics add to the illusion of personal revelation. Didion frequently addresses the reader directly, as if we have entered an intimate form of conversation. She writes, “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” And her idiosyncratic cadences, her use of a kind of lulling, incantatory repetition, reinforces our sense of connection to her. Take this passage from The White Album: “It was Morrison who had described the Doors as ‘erotic politicians.’ It was Morrison who got arrested in Miami in December of 1967. … It was Morrison who got up there in his black vinyl pants with no underwear and projected the idea, and it was Morrison they were waiting for now.”

And yet even after reading every single word Didion has ever published, how much does one know about her? One knows what she packs on a trip to interview a subject, one knows about the jasmine she smells on the way home from the airport in Los Angeles, but one knows almost nothing about her family, say, or her marriage, or her daughter. The personal information she imparts is so stylized, so mannered, so controlled that it is no longer personal information. The “I” in her essays is an elegant silhouette of a woman. There is something shadowy about her, something peculiarly obscure, like the famous photograph of her hiding behind huge sunglasses. She is, in the end, a writer of enormous reserve.

Where I Was From covers some of the ordinary terrain of the memoir; namely, it begins with her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s crossing the country in pioneer wagons and ends with her mother’s death. And in some way, she is writing about her own reverse pioneering—her trip East, abandoning everything she grew up with. But there is an evasion at the center—a masterful, brilliant evasion but an evasion nonetheless. In her riff on California, Didion examines, variously, Frank Norris, Jack London, the Spur Posse, the waterways, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, the Bohemian Club, and the economy of the early ‘90s, and yet her own relation to the place and to her family go largely unexamined. She teases out every contradiction, picks apart every myth, and explodes every subtlety in minicritical essays, but when it comes to her own background, she falls back on ordinary—if perfectly crafted—description. Joan Didion, for all of her stylistic brio, becomes straightforward. She never gets beyond the cool surface. She is vague on certain crucial details. She writes, for instance, about her father going into a mental hospital for “some weeks or months.” But she does not say why exactly or what she makes of it. Instead she goes on for several pages on the history of committing people to mental institutions in the state of California, suggesting that there is a shocking tradition of abandonment in that history, until one is finally dying to ask, what about her own father?

There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patti Hearst, saying, “Never examine your feelings—they’re no help at all.”

So, why would she write a book that at least borders on being a memoir? Where I Was From is obsessed with unsatisfying graveyards: a family cemetery that was sold, children buried in trunks, women left in watery pools, or the dead buried on the trail, their graves run over with wagons. And in a way, this book represents another incomplete burial. Didion tells us the question, “Where will I be from?” occurred to her when her mother died, and it seems that the impetus for this book came out of that death. One senses that Didion is attempting to bury her parents, and yet she doesn’t quite. So much remains unsaid beneath the surface. Instead she writes what she always writes: about the lies we tell ourselves, about the absurdity of our desire for order, about the shamelessness and cowardice of human character. The usual elisions occur: She is writing about herself, she is writing about California, she is writing about the founding myths. This is, like much in Didion, both frustrating and amazing. She is a latter day Walt Whitman, singing of America by singing of herself.