Joan Didion’s California

Joan Didion’s California

How the splendor and chaos of the Golden State explains the writer’s vision of the world


The night of the day Joan Didion died, I went scrounging around my bookshelves for a copy of Where I Was From. I’ve lived in California all my life, underneath the weight of its political contradictions and atop its ecological dramas, and of all Didion’s works, this one, which sets out to interrogate the foundational mythologies of California, her generational ties to the state, and what she views as its unfortunate decline, seemed most appropriate to put the author’s death and this place into perspective. Scanning my shelves, I saw only the spines of Slouching and The White Album, After Henry and Play It , Run River and Miami, so I panic-texted a friend, a fellow California girl, who lives nearby. “EMERGENCY REQUEST,” I wrote her, “do you have a copy of Where I Was From that I could borrow TONIGHT?” She replied within minutes. “Found it,” my friend wrote, “and do you want South and West also?”

On my walk home from acquiring the books, through the low winter fog, the rapidity and sureness of this exchange — knowing that another young woman from here would have Didion’s writings on hand and at the ready — struck me as some flesh-and-blood example of just how fused the author’s legacy had become with the particularities of the Golden State, the ones she spent her entire life chronicling. I recalled a well-known passage from the middle of Where I Was From , where she dispassionately examines the inherited, and slightly brutal, regional conduct: “If my grandfather spotted a rattlesnake while driving, he would stop his car and go into the brush after it. To do less, he advised me more than once, was to endanger whoever entered the brush, and so violate what he called ‘the code of the West.’”

Suburban sprawl has since devoured so much of the rattlers’ rightful habitats, including good portions of the grassy San Joaquin Delta sloughs that the Didions have been traversing since long before the advent of cars. But regardless, wasn’t this network of Joan devotees some newer—probably inevitable—iteration of “the code of the West”? That’s what this social fabric has always felt like to us, at least, and especially those of us who demonstrated, sometime in our early teens, a small and nagging interest in writing.

First came the guilty admission of keeping a journal or of wanting to write without actually having done so. Then came the suggestion, usually from a friend’s mother (these mothers are often themselves from Sacramento or Los Angeles or San Francisco), that you must read Joan. She’s the blueprint, they all seemed to say in one way or another; here’s an essay called “Notes from a Native Daughter,” and just because you’re from out here doesn’t mean you can’t leave for back East to work at a fashion magazine in New York City.

The author, however, made keeners and disciples out of so many, far and wide, not just the locals. She possessed, more than any of her contemporaries, the contradictory essence of a pop star: Her pieces, like catchy love songs, have the effect of making you feel like she’s excavating raw material from your soul alone. And, as has been noted widely, pale imitations of her mercurial and melodious sentences — especially those found in early essays, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that take on the broad topics of “morality” and “self-respect” — can be identified in countless pieces of writing. Who hasn’t attempted to replicate her signature lilt? Didion, in short, made things feel, for a whole generation and then generations after that, cinematic and possible. That is, Didion’s writing — and equally, if not more so, the very fact of her — permitted young writers to take their own thoughts seriously enough to jot down.

Yet as much as Didion’s essays on personal character have become touchstones for innumerable people who, for reasons good or vain, aspire to a life of writing, it’s her pieces on California that are most illuminating of Didion’s rhetorical investments and philosophies. Beginning with her 1968 hit Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion established a resigned but visceral voice, one that attributed feelings like despondence, madness, and desire to the terrain and natural phenomena. In the opener, titled “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” the atrophy of all things — this would become one of Didion’s signature obsessions, an essential through line of her oeuvre , in myriad pieces on subjects besides California— can be linked directly to the onset of fire season:

October is a bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

This essay, at first, is a retelling of the case of Lucille Miller, the San Bernardino housewife who murdered her husband by setting aflame the car in which he was sleeping. But Didion’s ulterior motive, at the outset, is to frame this violence, in part, as symptomatic of the region. Denizens of this fated wasteland just east of Los Angeles, the writer argues, have only the “haunted” Mojave Desert to lean on — and nothing good can come from that. The emotional and aesthetic experiences the state’s topography elicits appears again in “Notes From a Native Daughter,” in which Didion chalks up the “uneasy suspension” within Californians, between a profound sense of optimism and of loss, because it’s here that the edge of contiguous America meets the daunting Pacific. End of continent—end scene. Later, in 1979’s The White Album—my favorite of the two early collections—we get an essay called “Holy Water,” in which Didion details her fascination with the transport of water throughout the state. “It is easy to forget,” she writes, “that the only natural force over which we have any control out here is water, and that only recently.” Again, there’s that identifiable submission to the laws of nature, though, too, this sentence brings into focus one of Didion’s oft-quoted remarks about her craft: Writing is “the only way I can be aggressive…. I’m totally in control of this tiny, tiny world.” It seems, then, that to Didion, the essay might very well be a form whose utility is like that of an aqueduct, bringing, to where it is dry and lifeless and unruly, something of a total and fertile thought.

I witness, in the lilting shifts of Didion’s sentences, a mirror to the truest tension of California life: the embodied paranoias that come with the extreme conditions of this place versus the collective ambition, since the settlers’ arrival, to defy the natural order. Didion, by the time she wrote Where I Was From, seemed to have departed from the excessive use of such sonorous twisting—staccato aphorisms and fragmented scenes still litter its pages, however—but the book offers the author’s clearest articulation of this regional strain and its origins. Over four parts, Didion identifies, parses, then mourns the way in which her California (which is to say the California of a multigenerational, land-owning clan that’s been here since before the Gold Rush) has changed. From the succession of ranches to strip malls and the devolution of what Didion seems to identify as a streamlined frontier ethic into political and social chaos, it’s apparent that loss and decay haunt this work in spades. The pioneer myths that populate her ancestors’ valorous diary entries about crossing into the Golden State, she realizes, can no longer be leaned upon, but that doesn’t stop Didion from morphing the settler compulsion of claim-staking into her own indelible, intruding, and exacting subjectivity. Didion, in other words, through the routine admission of her presence across all her writings, lays claim to her subjects, and enacts a proprietary bent over the course of relayed events.

Didion’s deep displays of sentimentality for an early and stolen California made reading Where I Was From that first time, however many years ago, a sobering experience. The steadfast pride she maintains in her pioneer forebears has the whiff of someone who hasn’t interrogated their fraught, violent lineages rigorously enough. All but pushed to the margins are Indigenous people, the only people who have any legitimate claim to this land. So it was then, after this initial reading, that I no longer regarded Joan as the blueprint—as was recommended in my early teen years—but instead the jumping-off point. There is, still, no one who enunciates the moods of this place quite like Didion does. How validating to read passages about the craze that’s carried on the fire winds or about the spiraling helplessness one feels when looking out at empty reservoirs! But now, too, I can know the limits of her thinking without discrediting it entirely, and can find courage enough to pick up where she left off, without replicating the pride or the glossing or the nostalgia, and find more capacious ways of facing down the untenable myths of home. Didion taught us, by example, to write hard about the places we love—and has permitted us to be a little glamorous while we do it.

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