In praise of older books: The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

Week 50: Julie Parsons on her favourite books

Joan Didion’s “The White Album” observes America between  1968 and 1978, hearing at one point America as “an angel choir on Dexamyl”.

Joan Didion’s “The White Album” observes America between 1968 and 1978, hearing at one point America as “an angel choir on Dexamyl”.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Thus begins Joan Didion’s collection: the ordinary made extraordinary, the mundane made exotic, the everyday made unique.

Her subject is America, no less, 1968-1978. A time she says, when she hears “America singing at precisely this pitch: ethereal, speedy, an angel choir on Dexamyl.”

Dexamyl: the amphetamine of choice.

The Manson “family” have killed Sharon Tate; the Black Panthers are talking about revolution; it’s the time of the shopping mall – “all those Plazas and Malls and Esplanades . . . They are toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes.” Didion, who is taking a correspondence course in shopping-centre theory, turns her distinterested gaze on them all.

Water flow

She’s a Californian, in love with water. She thinks about it “with a reverence others might find excessive”. A visit to the California State Water Project is Didion at her evocative best: “The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave desert from the Colorado river.” She imagines it, “up in the granite keeps of the Sierra Nevada”, then cascading, “dropping a thousand feet into the turbines”. She makes a thing of beauty “in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale”.

And this is her strength as observer and writer. She’s a stickler for detail: Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald, governor of California, is being filmed by a TV crew. She’s doing something everyday, like nipping rose buds in her garden. The cameraman wants a dry run. Nancy will oblige. She will fake it. “Fake the nip, yeah,” the cameraman said. “Fake the nip.”

Didion watches. She watches the Manson trial, the Santa Ana wind setting Malibu on fire, the sand on a private beach, raked to perfection, distinguishing it from the sand on a public beach. Nothing too small for her gaze; no story too inconsequential to be told.

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