I recently finished Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album. I surely have read some Didion essays before this, but I can’t remember any, and this is definitely the first book-length work of hers I’ve read. It was one of those books that had been sitting around on my shelves for ages, since before I began blogging even, and I finally decided it was time.
I’m glad I did get around to it, and I’m glad I read it around the time I was reading Jenny Diski, because the two have some similarities in their writing style. I’ve decided that I haven’t found enough female nonfiction writers like these two; perhaps this is my fault, and I simply haven’t found them, but it seems to me that I don’t often come across women writing nonfiction in their style — aggressive, blunt, prickly, scrupulously honest, and not out to please. I put Mary McCarthy in this category too. Virginia Woolf can write like this as well, except that she often does seem like she is out to please, that she could be much harsher if she wanted to, but she chooses to try to woo readers over to her side. I suppose, though, that all these writers are out to please in one way or another, whether it’s obvious that they are or not. At any rate, there is something about this style I find immensely appealing, and I have felt this way for a long time.
Does anybody else come to mind who might fit in this category?
The White Album is very much a book about the mood of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in California. After the lengthy title essay, there are sections called “California Republic,” “Women,” “Sojourns,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties.” The essays in these sections take up a whole range of subjects, from Doris Lessing (Didion doesn’t like her fiction but admires her tenacity as a writer and thinker) to migraines, Hollywood, Los Angeles traffic control, Georgia O’Keefe, the Hoover Dam, and mall construction. The range of topics is wide, but her style is similar throughout — direct and straightforward with relatively simple and short sentences, and brilliant at creating a mood and setting up a scene. She tends to work by juxtaposition; in several essays she tells a series of stories not directly related but getting at a similar theme and leaving the reader to piece together all the meanings and implications. She likes to let her stories do their own work — she lets them speak for themselves rather than rushing in to spell out the meaning herself.
The title essay works in just this way; in it, she tells a range of stories, each one working to capture the feeling of the time. Among these stories is a personal one of her struggle with depression. She tells part of the story herself, but she leaves some of the storytelling to a doctor’s report, which she quotes as length. She introduces it with the words “another flash cut,” and follows it with this commentary:
The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me. The tests mentioned — the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index — were administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the “attack of vertigo and nausea” mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.
Then she moves on to tell stories about her neighborhood, about the arrest of Huey Newton, about watching The Doors recording an album, about student unrest at San Francisco State. It’s a powerful picture, but Didion refuses to draw any conclusions about it or to bring the essay to any real closure. In fact, the essay ends with this phrase, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” There are no pat answers or easy lessons to be drawn — instead what we have is a series of vignettes that capture a mood but don’t cohere into any overarching idea or argument. I came away from the book remembering most of all Didion’s distinctive voice.
I recently finished Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, which is an entirely different book from Didion’s, but which left me with a powerful sense of voice as well. I’ll write about that book soon.