By Liat Faver
Joan Didion is an observer. Curious about the effects of people and events on society, she keenly watches herself swimming in life’s uncertain waters. In the first pages of The White Album she announces, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (11). Didion tells many stories of real people living and working, surviving and dying in the middle of chaos. Her stories remind us who we are, strangely beautiful, at times unfailingly destructive, durable, predictable, puzzling, and capricious. When we hear bad news, we “look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Or at least we do for a while” (11).
Album is chiefly set in the 1960s and early seventies in California. In the first chapters we learn about local news stories, Didion’s psychiatric report, The Doors, black militants, politics, and the items on Didion’s list of travel necessities, “made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative” (35). She highlights what is missing from her list is a watch. She has every other practical need covered, but “I didn’t know what time it was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself” (36). Didion’s script is elusive, and keeps changing. She thinks she has it memorized, but in the course of events she finds “nothing on my mind was in the script as I remembered it” (37). She is sharing a common ailment among women. Somewhere in the shuffle of doing what we are supposed to be doing, we lose sight of the helmsperson. The director is at large, and the show must go on.
Didion takes us to Hawaii, where she continues to dissect her life while simultaneously putting it back together, finding common ground with the past and present. Didion and her husband are trying to heal their marriage, and her descriptions of the distance between them are familiar and sad. She tells herself she is “not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with . . . bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come” (135).
The White Album is an escapade through the young life of a successful writer. Didion involves us in her identity struggles and her insistence on approaching her craft with integrity. Her curiosity is contagious, and although some of her themes are outdated, their applications are not. She elevates us with her ability to see things as they are, and in her understated tone, somehow makes our wasteland palatable. Didion’s artistry resides in her subtleties. She inspires us to remove our rose-colored glasses and take an honest look at our world and ourselves.