The Searcher | The Nation


The Searcher

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California's preference for myth over fact has, appropriately, been reflected in its movies, an industry where myth is gospel, and language, hence thought, is looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion. The children Didion describes in Where I Was From are the progeny of Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, children who, at the close of the film, get lost in an ominous mansion--reflective of old California money, old California taste--that dwarfs them. When she was younger, Didion lived in one such mansion herself in Sacramento:

About the Author

Hilton Als
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the co-editor, with Darryl Turner, of White Noise: An Eminem Reader (...

We lived in dark houses and favored, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken, which was said to "bring out the pattern." To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: It looks "new." This predilection for the "old" extended into all areas of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, prints should be faded, rugs worn, wallpaper streaked by sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in Sacramento in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains, which were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched, crumbled.

It was perhaps the memory of the golden light those curtains cast that prompted Didion to hang gold fabric across the windows of one of her first apartments in New York, where she wrote her first California novel, Run River. The move to New York in the late 1950s was, ostensibly, a break with the past, another move to another golden land for this woman who had yet to know or accept that she was a heroine in a postmodern western, but no matter. Writing was the great discovery, her process of intellection, the frontier.

A hallmark of Didion's five novels is the female protagonist who gets on a plane at a moment's notice, the female protagonist who leaves husband and child behind for another dream, the foolhardy expedition that results in mayhem, or death. (Didion's books on El Salvador and Miami reflect an interest in frontiers on the verge of collapse shortly after the dream of "progress" has been abandoned or failed to "add up.") The reporter's wanderlust, the novelist's interest in landscapes other than her own, are, in the end, Didion's inheritance:

My mother had no interest in keeping the hill ranch [a property long in Didion's mother's family] or in fact any California land: California, she said, was now too regulated, too taxed, too expensive. She spoke enthusiastically, on the other hand, about moving to the Australian outback.
   ""Eduene," my father would say, a remonstration.
   "I would," she would insist, reckless.
   ""Just leave California? Give it all up?"
   ""In a minute," she would say, the pure strain talking, Elizabeth Scott's great-great-great-great granddaughter. "Just forget it."

Reading this technically ambitious and emotionally expansive book, one can see that Didion and the characters she has created in her novels--women who search for landscapes they were not born to, but know in their imaginations--are the heirs of Eduene Didion, women who set out with heart and heartbreak into the great unknown.

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