The White Album, by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion. The White Album is a book of her essays, published in 1979, that tells her stories of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  I remember when I read The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the year after her husband’s death, I wondered how much of her writing was grief and how much was mad-genius. Reading this, I wondered how much was 1968 and how much was mad-genius.

One highlight comes right at the beginning when she reprints verbatim a psychiatric report done on her in that year. The original problem was vertigo and nausea. From the report:

“It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal.”

Know anyone like that? Didion says:

“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.”

She tells a good story about spending a day at a recording session with The Doors. Morrison was missing. When he finally arrives, there is a pretense that no one notices. The funny thing is that as Didion describes it, Ray Manzarek was the most snarky about Morrison’s absence. I doubt that is how Manzarek would portray the scene.

She also talks about taking her seven year old daughter to the Art Institute where Georgia O’Keefe was in attendance at an exhibition of her work. Little Quintana ran up the stairs to stare at a mural and then said, “I have to talk to her”. Loved that.

Toward the end, in an essay entitled “On the Morning After the Sixties”, Didion describes a scene from when she was at Berkeley in 1953. In summary she says:

“That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail – the idea of having had a “date” for a football lunch now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist – suggests the extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies.”

I was reminded in that essay of the theory that Generation X has rather more in common with the Silent Generation (to which Didion belongs) than to Gen Y or those Baby Boomers. She says:

“We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaninglessness which was man’s fate.”

I could go on and on with this lady.

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