An Introduction to Joan Didion: Brief Musings on ‘The White Album’

I’ve been intrigued by Joan Didion for a while, and as with most things nowadays, it started with a Netflix documentary. Released not so long ago in October 2017, ‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’ summarises a writing career somewhat enviable, coloured with equal parts tragedy and charm and addressing decades of remarkable contribution to the American literary canon. From Sacramento to New York and back again to California, Didion contributes to the style of ‘New Journalism’ through an intense, insightful and precise perspective, writing against convention of the time to emphasise the truth above sensationalism or objective fact.

Joan Didion at a Party, Unknown Date

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. The famous opening line to the first section of Joan Didion’s essay collection ‘The White Album’ is a summary of themes to come; part-memoir, part-analysis of a society at a particular moment in time, but one that can be identified within a much larger cultural context. We learn about California in the 1960’s through vignettes of Didion’s personal experiences, questioning the very premise of every story ever relayed to others, the myths we reiterate and the memories that we collect over time. We impose a narrative onto these encounters in order to seek further meaning, ignoring and discarding what doesn’t fit into the ‘ideal’ representation of our lives outwardly presented to others.

This portrait in particular struck me as interesting within a more contemporary framework, taking social media into account within our modern landscape. I couldn’t help but compare this with the way that we use snapshot images, Instagram likes and the number of followers we have on these platforms to validate our own experience of the every-day; to equally document the most exciting and mundane aspects of our existence in equal measure; to offer further meaning on the topic of our own lives, memories and encounters with other people. It is important to acknowledge the connection between the past and present here within our incessant need to make our reality a thing of significance. Didion’s collection of essays prompts this notion within the discourse of her writings within ‘The White Album,’ bringing a range of matters to the forefront of the reader’s concern.

I can’t help but think that Joan Didion and I share quite a few interests and motivations. We are both intrigued and engaged by the macabre, by cultural chaos and disintegration. In part, I was therefore inclined to choose ‘The White Album’ as my Didion debut because of the issues brought to the forefront within this collection of essays; tales of a close friendship with Linda Kasabian and subsequent discussion of the Charles Manson murders for example, which cast a true sense of fear and paranoia over Hollywood at the time of her writing.

The very catalyst responsible for shattering the mirage of a glamorous neighbourhood is powerful in and of itself, reminding the reader of the ways in which “the apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” Tales of drug abuse, psychological struggle, mental health and depression, alongside racial tensions fuelled by demonstrations from extremist groups like the Black Panther Party, only contribute to a documentation of the way that society became fragmented outside of the ‘swinging 60’s’ Hippie Culture facade that was ever-present on the surface. Didion explores a decade of life in loosely related accounts, writing from personal experience yet without excessive sentiment, creating in consequence something that I believe to be an admirable and valuable contribution to the American literary forefront.

Joan Didion and her Stingray, 1968 (Julian Wasser)

I’m hoping to spend the rest of 2019 periodically working my way through some of Joan Didion’s further back catalogue. ‘The White Album’ ticked a lot of boxes for me on account of the fact that I’m a complete sucker for memoir and non-fiction, influenced also by the amazing chronicle of her life that I had watched just days beforehand on Netflix. Next, I’m going to dip into ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ and ‘Blue Nights‘ to explore Didion’s theories of grief and mourning, in what I think may adopt a more accessible format than some of her journalistic essays.

The White Album‘ is available to purchase for your life library online at Waterstones.