Reviews | Try to cancel Joan Didion
Accounts of his political transformation often place particular emphasis on “Where I Come From,” his 2003 revisionist meditation on his birthplace and family myths. Writing in The New Republic after his death, Jacob Bacharach described it as “a tale of conversion – or, perhaps, repudiation: the discovery, after a lifetime of thoughtless faith, that the same worth of a whole life of steadily accumulating doubt suddenly rolls down the mountainside and drowns out mumbled old liturgies. Writing in 2015, Louis Menand in The New Yorker called it “the central book of Didion’s career.”
If we view Didion’s career primarily in terms of his conversion, then Menand is right – “Where I Come From” offers the clearest sense of transformation, woven with criticism and even repudiation of some of his early writings. . But if you read the book side-by-side with that earlier work — from “Run, River,” the California novel to her later book reviews, to “Notes of a Native Girl,” an essay in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — it seems overly long and overcooked, less of a sweeping overhaul and more of an overly literal unpacking of uncertainties and ambiguities that it handled with more subtlety and complexity at first.
At a key moment in “Where I Came From”, Didion takes her daughter, Quintana, to Old Sacramento to show her the places steeped in family lore, and halfway through realizes the fallacy of the experience:
I was about to explain this to Quintana – the saloon, the boardwalk, the generations of cousins who had walked as she walked this street on such hot days – when I stopped. Quintana was adopted. All the ghosts on that boardwalk were actually not Quintana’s fault. That boardwalk didn’t actually represent where Quintana came from. … In fact, I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana: it was only a theme, a decorative effect.
Now here is Didion in “Notes of a Native Girl”, making a similar point but with more ambiguity:
It is difficult to to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realize how someone’s memory is not a true memory at all but only the traces of someone else’s memory, stories passed down through the family network. I have an indelible “memory”, for example, of how Prohibition affected hop growers around Sacramento: the sister of a grower my family knew brought home a mink coat from San Francisco , and was told to take it back, and sat on the living room floor cradling that coat and crying. Although I was only born a year after Repeal, this scene feels more “real” to me than many others I’ve played myself.
See how the previous essay, the previous passage, contains the later idea – the falsity or unreality of family history and personal memory – but also conveys more complexity and mystery, the way something can being unreal and real at the same time, the impossibility of making the clear separation between past and present, narrative and memory and experience, which the last book tries to establish more roughly.
Although I may also be drawn to Didion’s earlier ambiguities because I myself come from California in a particular, attenuated way, and have my own borrowed memories that I’m reluctant to let go. I was born in San Francisco, my father grew up in Santa Monica and my sister now lives in Los Angeles. But I never really lived there; we were estranged from my father’s family growing up, and so my strong sense of that other side, my strong sense of connection, is entirely the result of those “traces of someone else’s memory” – plus, of course, many years of reading Joan Didion’s essays.
The migration Didion made from a certain type of conservative nostalgia, Bacharach suggests in his essay, is “a metonymy of a larger American experience of history as a dream from which we must wake up to write it down. “.
But Didion’s best work, even when it wasn’t his last word, denied the reader precisely that kind of stark dichotomy. The dream alone can be dangerous; it can turn into ideology and fantasy. But the waking world isn’t all there is either, and you can’t fully describe reality unless you stay halfway in dreams, myths, memories that don’t belong to you alone.