Chantal's Reviews > The White Album

The White Album by Joan Didion
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Sep 17, 2010

it was amazing

Published in 1979, The White Album is a collection of essays exploring and surveying the culture, politics and effects of the Sixties, written by Joan Didion, a woman, a journalist and a Californian, who experienced it from the inside out. As a student at Berkely, a wife and mother in her home on Franklin Avenue -- a house in the California neighborhood referred to as the “senseless killing neighborhood” -- and a writer with a press pass, Didion had the opportunity, or misfortune, to experience the Sixties from the core of the chaos. With these essays she seeks to report, understand and, so it seems, recover from these times.
The introductory essay, for which the collection is titled, focuses on the violence and irrationality of the era, Didion’s experience of it, and her response to it. The piece touches on civil unrest, racism, drugs, senseless murders, and a Doors recording session in which Jim Morrison lights a match and lowers it to the fly of his vinyl pants while everyone watches and nobody reacts. “There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever,” Didion comments of the scene in the recording studio -- alluding to the tumultuous period as a whole, the decade in which the “improbable had become the probable, the norm.”
Also in this essay, Didion explains that it was not uncommon for strangers to approach one’s door, or even to open it and let themselves in -- the way the Fergusons had come to be at Ramon Novarro’s door and Charles Manson at Rosemary and Leno LeBianca’s home. She recounts an instance when such a stranger had entered her home and stood looking at her for some time until he spotted her husband on the stair landing. “‘Chicken Delight,’ he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, nor was he carrying any.”
A psychological report of the author, included in “The White Album,” (written when Didion suffered an attack of vertigo and nausea) evidences Didion’s fear and vulnerability for the world she lived in. The doctor’s report details her “failing defenses”, alienation, pessimism and withdrawal. But in hindsight, Didion claims: “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
The remaining essays report on a variety of issues pertinent to the period and place: water, politics, the feminist movement, bureaucracy, construction projects, motorcycle gangs, religious sects, student protests, and the movie industry. And, always, there is a subjectivity to these pieces, a subjectivity for which Didion’s been criticized because she is, after all, a journalist. However, it is precisely this subjectivity, this personal element
-- Didion’s observations, criticisms, personal wonder and confusion -- that works so successfully in this collection. Didion’s emotional and psychological state in the late-Sixties reflects the state of her generation, the confounded state of the country.

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