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California Screamin'

Joan Didion has checked out of California—but as her new memoir, Where I Was From, shows, she can never leave.

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Prima Donner: Didion's roots suggest she's part of California's aristocracy, but she's still alienated.  

For Joan Didion, California is like an old boyfriend, a bad scene she keeps playing over and over in her mind—how can she not have seen its flaws? The scales are always falling from her eyes. In her new memoir, Where I Was From (even in the title, the backs of her fingers are pressed against her forehead in full drama-queen style), we see Didion as a supersmart little girl reading a report called “Our California Heritage” to her eighth-grade graduation at the Arden School outside Sacramento, in which she praises the adventurousness and daring of her forebears, and their industry in making their dusty valleys bloom. Silly girl. “It would be some years,” she writes, “before I recognized that certain aspects of ‘Our California Heritage’ didn’t add up.”

In one sense, Where I Was From is an accounting of this arithmetic, a ledger of ironies and self-delusions, the story of a pyramid scheme. California, land of don’t-tread-on-me individualism, was actually a joint venture between the railroads and the government. California’s sense of itself as an anything-goes paradise is given the lie by the shockingly high rate of commitment to mental institutions. San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, founded in the late nineteenth century by journalists and assorted free thinkers, was so completely colonized by speculators and other big-money interests that any bohemian who wanted to go had to sneak in. Then there’s Didion’s grandmother, who died of influenza on the day of World War I’s false armistice; she died believing the war was over, goes the Didion family legend. Silly girl.

Didion whizzes through the literature of California (think of a West Coast version of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore), giving speed-chess deconstructions of 150 years of California myth as found in the work of writers like Frank Norris, Jack London, and one Joan Didion, authoress of the charmingly wrongheaded 1963 novel Run River. Elsewhere, she relies on telling phrases and anecdotes (“never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can,” wrote one Donner-party survivor to someone who was about to make the crossing) to stand in for whole mind-sets. It’s a collage rather than a narrative, and, written as it is in so many modes, it doesn’t quite hang together.

California is rotten at the core, and Didion takes a certain dark satisfaction in getting under its skin. There’s never been hedonism in her writing, but there’s always pleasure. This seems like a paradox, but it’s not. She’s made a career of refusing to be seduced by the big-shouldered speculators selling California sensuality. She refuses to lie back and enjoy it. The effect is to get the seduction and the refusal, too—and this, too, can be a turn-on.

Before Didion began her lacerating revisionism in the sixties, the people who explored California’s underside tended to be cranks, the ones who ended up in the asylums. Now, of course, those inmates run free. Think of Mike Davis, author of the fascinating City of Quartz and the deeply loopy Ecology of Fear, who’s founded a near-religion on the hidden evils of California—the dystopiate of the people.

On the other hand, who cares about the core when you could live so comfortably on the surface? This is what is so agonizing about California to a certain kind of critic: Don’t these people know, as they’re surfing and tanning and relaxing in Big Sur in their hot tubs, that they’re in a dream world? Didion calls it “the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime.” It’s the age-old conflict of Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli versus Mr. Hand.

Having once been in love with her own California illusion, Didion is in love with her disillusionment. She’s always had a compulsion to rain on parades. Sometimes, one wants to say, “Joan, lighten up,” or suggest that she put her head in a paper bag, a therapy she once wrote about, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But Didion’s gift and originality were to imagine her neuroses as world-historical, and to make them so. The fact that she was overwrought didn’t cloud her vision; it made her see more clearly, something of which she’s always been able to convince her readers.

Where I Was From seems to promise the story of a fall, the vanishing of some Eden, but as always with Didion, it’s not so simple. The question quickly arises: Fall from what? Her own California roots are ancient—one of her ancestors traveled for a time with the Donner party—and one can identify some Didionesque genetic traits. “These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew. . . . When they couldn’t think what else to do they moved another thousand miles.”

The crossing from the East, whether by wagon or train, is a new birth that’s always botched. California is always a mistake, though Didion’s far from saying how it could have been gotten right.

Her prelapsarian California origin gives her wisdom, but it also keeps her on the sidelines, alienated, watching the big deals and migrations that created modern California. And to a fading aristocracy, nothing that happens afterward measures up. “I see now that the life I was raised to admire was entirely the product of this isolation, infinitely romantic, but in a kind of vacuum,” she writes.

So that wasn’t quite real, but what came after wasn’t real, either. What’s myth? What’s fact? The dreamers are deluded, but cynics are stunted, psychologically impoverished. It’s a kind of shell game, in which it doesn’t matter which one the nut of truth is under—the performance is what we’re paying for. There can be a thrilling vertigo in having lost one’s bearings.

There was a time when this exposure of ironies was revelatory. It was a sixties impulse to expose the lies of institutional America, itself tightly coiled on the booster’s compulsion to create false impressions for commercial gain. (Our yin and yang—yang is definitely winning.) In the postwar years of California triumphalism, when every booster’s wildest fantasy was coming true, a voice like Didion’s, sharp as an ice pick, dipped in acid for good measure, could change the world.

And she turned out to be right. Since then, everyone has caught a glimpse of the emptiness of the California dream when the government turns off the power, which makes Where I Was From valedictory too—yet another part of “Our California Heritage.” These days, a sensibility like Didion’s tends to be overwhelmed. Irony is a useless weapon against an enemy like Arnold Schwarzenegger—it does no good to point out that he’s a creature of fantasy, since he’s done a good job of that himself. Which itself is ironic.


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