Where I Was From
226 pp., $23.00
Reviewed by Caroline Langston
The idea of California as less a state than a collection of mythologies has long been a central preoccupation of writer Joan Didion. In her early essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Didion brought the personal narrative conventions of the "New Journalism" to bear upon such subjects as the San Francisco counterculture, the small-town Sacramento of her youth, and the atmosphere of cultural paranoia in Los Angeles after the Manson murders in 1969.
It wasn't until I first visited Los Angeles myself in 1996 that I realized how much my expectations of that city had been colored by Didion's spare, evocative descriptions: the sunlight in Malibu, the crawl of one-story suburbs, and above all, the feeling of weightlessness and disconnection in driving the freeways, just like protagonist Maria Wyeth experienced in Didion's novel Play It As It Lays.
Over the course of her career, though, Didion's attention has turned away from such atmospheric meditation. While the hypocrisies and ironies of official "systems" have always been recurring tropes in her work, Didion's later work has focused more specifically on these disjunctions in the areas of national politics and entertainment, in essays on such subjects as the Central Park jogger case and the machinations of Democratic and Republican politics. (One volume is simply titled Political Fictions.) Bristling with meticulous analysis, these later essays are nevertheless often ponderous, too much "insider" takes on the news-cycle events that dominate Sunday morning talk programs.
Where I Was From, Didion's newest collection, represents a return to California and the body of themes surrounding it that have animated Didion's work over the years. While these four essays retain the later Didion's emphasis on political and media spectacle, this return to her origins and her early subject matter imbues the work with a richness and a sense of personal urgency that her more recent work has lacked, and which builds importantly upon her earlier work. And while disillusionment is another characteristic Didion mood, in Where I Was From, Didion the Californian turns her attention to unpacking the misconceptions of her own history—as well as California's.
The first two essays are the volume's longest and most completely set forth the thematic strands that are developed in the subsequent two. Part 1 takes on the myth of the clear-eyed, individualistic California pioneer—an archetype toward which Didion, a descendent of 19th-century settlers, has demonstrated a considerable investment, especially in her first novel Run, River and in Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Here, in a typically graceful turn, Didion describes "the appliqué;, green and red on a muslin field," that her great-great-great-great grandmother made on the journey West: it "hangs now in my dining room in New York and hung before that in the living room of a house I had on the Pacific Ocean." She quotes her own 8th-grade graduation speech, given in 1948 on the subject of "Our California Heritage," and laudatory of the risks early settlers had taken.
The balance of the essay, however, details several realities that complicate California's perception of individualism and independence: namely, the state's historic reliance on federal funding and outside capital to underwrite its risk-taking ventures, from the early years of the railroad to the postwar period's massive water and agricultural projects.
The second essay focuses primarily on Southern California's troubled aerospace industry, and addresses the adverse implications of that dependence on federal largesse, particularly when it is withdrawn. In specific, Didion looks at the consequences for the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood. Built in the late '40s for workers at the Long Beach McDonnell Douglas plant, "the world's largest subdivision" was a symbol of California's astonishing postwar boom, but by 1993 Lakewood was notorious for the "Spur Posse" high school sexual harassment scandal, evidence to many of the community's decline. (In the essay, Didion cites writer and Lakewood resident D.J. Waldie's 1995 memoir and history of Lakewood, Holy Land, a moving testament to a suburban experience of the sacramental. Look for a copy of Waldie's book: it's a neglected gem.)
Parts 3 and 4 of Where I Was From illustrate more closely Didion's willingness to reevaluate her own self-deceptions, even as she evaluates California's. Just as in the wake of Spur Posse scandal, Lakewood residents lamented how their community had "changed," Didion throughout part 3 examines her own previous nostalgia—quoting from her early essays and Run, River—for the "lost" California before the postwar expansion "changed" everything, in the process casting doubt on whether California was ever pristine and unspoiled.