Eric's Reviews > The White Album

The White Album by Joan Didion
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's review
Jul 31, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: essays, westward-ho, favorites
Read in December, 2010

If I had started with The White Album instead of Slouching Toward Bethlehem I might have been spared two years of blithely embarrassing myself with statements like: “Joan Didion? She’s ok.” Actually she’s amazing. The rhythms of her self-dramatization in Slouching were too arch for my taste, or perhaps for my mood. The White Album must be different, or I must have changed, because I love the persona that emerges from its rhythms. She’s brooding, migrainous, in the first essay paranoid, yet essentially tough-minded and clear-seeing—a recipe, of sorts, for my favorite type of writer. Baudelaire and Cioran also brazed their delicate nerves to hard, cutting styles.

I like her excitability, her habit of sudden absorption. Of late ‘60s biker grindhouse she writes, “I saw nine of them recently, saw the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook.” The book’s keynote, right there. Didion takes the stuff of recondite hobbies and autistic fixation—irrigation infrastructure, the Governors’ mansions of California—and finds the grandeur, the lyric, the idea.

Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw the Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming against the harsh rusts and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds and thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon and sometimes by the ominous outlets to unused spillways, black in the lunar clarity of the desert night. Quite often I hear the turbines…

I walked across the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map, he had said, was for when we were all gone and the dam was left. I had not thought much of it when he said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its complete isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.

And leave it to the poet of Public Works to hang out with Malibu lifeguards and delight in “the laconic routines and paramilitary rankings” of those “civil servants in red trunks,” cherish their use of “a diction as flat and as finally poetic as that of Houston Control.”

The White Album is rich in another effect, one I cannot name and so will clumsily indicate by invoking Holly’s stereopticon in Badlands, Joseph Cornell’s doll coffins among other uncanny capsules of ephemera; also, your mom’s tasseled dance card, and Flaubert’s assertion that “when everything is dead, the imagination will rebuild entire worlds from a few elderflower twigs and the shards of a chamber-pot”:

The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner. The bathrooms are big and airy and they do not have bidets but they do have room for hampers, and dressing tables, and chairs on which to sit and read a story to a child in the bathtub.

(“Many Mansions”)

She was a child on the Wisconsin prairie who played with china dolls and painted watercolors with cloudy skies because sunlight was too hard to paint and, with her brothers and sisters, listened every night to her mother read stories of the Wild West, of Texas, of Kit Carson and Billy the Kid. She told adults that she wanted to be an artist and was embarrassed when they asked what kind of artist she wanted to be: she had no idea “what kind.” She had no idea what artists did. She had never seen a picture that interested her: other than a pen-and-ink Maid of Athens in one of her mother’s books, some Mother Goose illustrations printed on cloth, a tablet cover that showed a little girl with pink roses, and the painting of Arabs on horseback that hung in her grandmother’s parlor.

(“Georgia O’Keeffe”)

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04/17 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim A great review such as yours makes me want to reach out again for Didion's books.

Eric Thanks Jim! Glad I could recall her to mind!

message 3: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Your reviews are always breath-takingly well put together, passionate and direct. I don't know how we came to be goodreads friends but I'm awfully glad we did. Thank you, sir, for again introducing me to something new and wonderful. Have you read Bakker's The Twin? It is of immense beauty and I think you would find it so as well.

Eric Thanks Rebecca! And thanks for the Bakker suggestion!

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