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224 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1979
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.
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.
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 seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it."
"Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner."
"A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image, and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones."
...unspecified tensions seemed to be rendering everyone in the room catatonic...The curious aspect of Morrison's arrival was this: no one acknowledged it. He spoke almost in a whisper, as if he were wresting the words behind some disabling aphasia...Robby Krieger picked at his guitar, and said that he needed a fuzz box. The producer suggested that he borrow one from the Buffalo Springfield, who were recording in the next studio. Krieger shrugged. Morrison sat down again on the leather couch and leaned back. He lit a match. He studied the flame a while and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowered it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watched him...There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever.The 60s- the decade she lived through and therefore, as a writer, wanted to chronicle- end before she can understand what's happening, and then all that's left are some Scientology tracts and a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land in a closet in an abandoned seaside home. But isn't that the way time always seems to pass?
The Beverly Hills Eugene's, not unlike Senator McCarthy's campaign itself, had a certain deja vu aspect to it...the gesture towards a strobe light was nothing that might interfere with "good talk"...[and] there at Eugene's I heard the name "Erich Fromm" for the first time in a long time, and many other names cast out for the sympathetic magic they might work...Well okay, but there's no pleasing some people. What kind of light would have been sufficient to avoid cliche? And is it really so bad if a light helps to facilitate a "good talk"? Maybe you had to be there, but I just don't get it. Meanwhile, if a reader (like me) happens to really like Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, he's left to shrug his shoulders and understand that he's just not sophisticated enough to know why we should all instinctively roll our eyes at the mention of Erich Fromm- fair enough if you think he's worthless, but maybe you should engage with him, explain why. It serves here as lazy shorthand for something that I think you would have had to be part of this particular milieu to get. At her worst, I remember that Didion was a big influence on Bret Easton Ellis- on his laconic style, which has always seemed derived from the assurance that nothing really matters, nothing means anything, and it would take too much energy to look into anyway.
There was the belief in business success as a transcendent ideal. There was the faith that if one transforms oneself from an "introvert" into an "extrovert", if one learns to "speak effectively" and "do a job", success and its concomitant, spiritual grace, follow naturally...Or the leader of a Pentecostal church, busy getting his followers ready for a drive from California to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where God has promised they'll be safe from a coming earthquake, in "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik":
It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time for "turning attention", for "problems" and "solutions." Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more...It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.
He seemed to be one of those people, so many of whom gravitate to Pentecostal sects, who move around the West and the South and the Border States forever felling trees in some interior wilderness, secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown...they participate in the national anxieties only through a glass darkly. In the interior wilderness no one is bloodied by history...Or fans of biker movies, in a passage that wouldn't have been out-of-place in Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels.
There is always that instant in which the outlaw leader stands revealed as existential hero. There is always that "perverse" sequence in which the bikers batter at some psychic sound barrier, degrade the widow, violate the virgin, defile the rose and the cross alike, break on through to the other side and find, once there, "nothing to say"...bike movies are made for all these children of vague "hill" stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made.In short, she's very attuned to the dissonance among ideology, action, and the psychological motivations that drive people towards those actions, very good at something she ascribes in "The White Album" to Evelyn Waugh: "scenes of industrious self-delusion, scenes of people absorbed in odd games."
I am talking about...the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise...We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, or masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate. To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation...we would make some money and live on a ranch. We would live outside history..I'm glad that I reread this essay as well. On my first reading, I assumed that I was reading an argument. Now I see that it's an exploration of a worldview (perhaps the hardest one to see, the most mysterious- one's own, not arrived at through any conscious or self-contained process), one that she has more ambivalence about than I first realized, although she does take a stance:
Only one person I knew at Berkley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America's three-year executive training program. Most of us live less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man's fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could...I'm not sure it's the right one. When I compare her with a contemporary like Mailer, they seem like two sides of the same coin. Mailer threw himself into everything, tried to be everywhere, participated in the game to the fullest. In other words yes, perhaps it's all a game- might as well go for broke. Or as Mailer once put it, "a true actor enjoys his life in any station." That at least seems a little more, well, fun.
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 was, he had said, 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 absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.And that is about as good a description of her writing as I can imagine.