The subtext of every Joan Didion essay is Joan Didion: This much we know already. As she wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “However dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always . . . the implacable ‘I.’ ” But piece together all those fragments of her “implacable ‘I’ ” strewn across her essays and all you get is a skewed, insubstantial portrait—a handful of dust.
Didion’s personality pervades her four decades of writing as an almost theatrically neurasthenic presence. The sickening migraines, the pills, the near-autistic discomfort with human interaction. But you’d have to scour her oeuvre to round up many specific biographical details: At age five, she fills her first notebook with the tale of a woman who dreamed she was freezing to death, only to wake and find herself scorching in the desert. At 13, she refuses to help her brother dig a hole for a swimming pool, instead spending the summer reading Eugene O’Neill. In her thirties, already a successful New Journalist and novelist, Didion is described in a psychiatric report as “a personality in the process of deterioration.” She has woven that condition into the very fabric of her glacial prose, transformed it into both an m.o. and a form of genius. Something draws her again and again to subjects that reconfirm her bleak, bereft worldview. She stares at American reality convulsing around her, pores over the official documents, and finds telling gaps and slippages. Whether L.A. and Haight Ashbury in the ’60s or Miami in the ’80s, the vibe is always Chinatown, with its encroaching decadence and stench of corruption.
Didion’s monochrome prose has always incited extreme reactions. Her grave cadences accumulate until the reader is confronted with those dark ironies whose spoor Didion tracks with the fix-finding instincts of a drug fiend. Such remorseless restraint can be maddening; critic Julie Burchill once complained that Didion writes like she’s been stuffed. Which was my initial reaction to Where I Was From, Didion’s latest nonfiction book. It feels unusually cadaverous, partly because I’d previously read some of the chapters when they appeared in The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, and partly because the subject—California—has been picked apart so many times before, not least by Didion herself.
Despite its title, Where I Was From isn’t an autobiography in any normal sense of the word, but it is revealing. In trademark fashion, Didion deals with things by not dealing—she dances around her motor-anxiety, taking us on a tour of her evasions and blind spots. She’s always flaunted her deep Californian roots, to the point of snobbishness. But now Didion methodically pokes holes in her most deeply held ideas about the place, drilled into her since childhood. If Californians are such unfettered individualists, why has the state relied so heavily on federal money from the very start? And if the place is so damn free-spirited, why has the rate of psychiatric commitment always been staggeringly high?
Rummaging through her own family lore along with assorted novels and histories, Didion comes to some grim conclusions about what it means to be a Californian. She starts with the founding myths—those “crossing stories” of intrepid souls like Didion’s own great-great-great grandmother, who traveled part of the way west with the notorious Donner Party (though not long enough to chow down on any pioneer pals). Like most of the state’s early settlers, “they tended to accommodate any means in pursuit of an uncertain end,” sometimes leaving fellow travelers for dead or burying babies along the trail. The California they helped build was a community of men and women ready to cut and run, who shared a propensity (as Charles Nordhoff noted back in 1874) “to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially, and to look for sudden fortunes by the chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.” Didion clearly feels implicated in this West Coast state of mind. The ease with which Californians lock their neighbors in loony bins and prisons, the strange realization that her clan sold the family cemetery and feels no responsibility to upkeep ancestors’ graves—”were not such abandonments the very heart of the crossing story? Jettison weight? Keep moving?. . . . Never dwell on what got left behind, never look back at all?” For most of the book Didion universalizes these experiences and avoids discussing personal guilt. At the end, though, there’s a sudden rush of revelation. She sources her own “nameless anxiety” in the malaise that emanated from her father, “a sadness so pervasive that it colored even those many moments he seemed to be having a good time . . . the tension he transmitted would seem so great that I would have to leave, run to my room and close the door.”
After her father’s funeral, she flees her mother and hometown and rushes back to New York, as if doomed to repeat the tie-severing syndrome of the native Californian. All her life Didion has run from her heritage, and yet that is her heritage—those pioneering female ancestors “given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew.” Although she’s spent many pages unspooling historical facts, gathering evidence to shatter her romanticized California, the book’s most devastating passage nestles near the end, in a paragraph about her mother’s recent death: “It would be a while before I realized that ‘me’ is what we think when our parents die, even at my age, who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from.” This is the tiny beating heart of Where I Was From, an ambivalent kind of homecoming for an ambivalent kind of writer.