California Über Alles: A TFT Review of The White Album at Thirty
An epilogue: Roman Polanski, Joan Didion’s fugitive co-godparent, is suddenly on house arrest in Switzerland as his 1977 sex-with-a-thirteen-year-old case comes out of cryogenic limbo. Susan Atkins, one member of Charles Manson’s zombie family, died last September. Squeaky Fromme is elderly and out of prison. Huey Newton is twenty years dead; Eldridge Cleaver, ten. Joan Didion herself is seventy-five, just a month younger than Manson, who is still in prison. And her book The White Album has a new edition out from FSG Classics. The era it describes has grown up and graduated into history, into Classics.
I was born in 1980, the year after The White Album was published, and now I’m old enough to “reflect” on Didion’s second nonfiction book on the Sixties and their aftermath. I look uneasily toward my own thirtieth birthday and full-fledged adulthood, but the essays in The White Album at least offer a creation story for uncertainty.
The title essay and a few others plumb the breakdown of narrative and meaning that attended the Sixties. The stories we tell ourselves in order to live, to scramble Didion’s memorable first line, dissolved into “flash pictures in variable sequence”: an anti-structure she invented for the essay and for those bewildering years. Nothing made sense anymore.
The crumbling of the narrative traumatized Didion, but she was witheringly critical of those who slouched toward comforting mirages. Hollywood liberals’ naïve vanity and “dictatorship of good intentions”; the Jaycees’ “astonishing notion” that campus social groups would solve student unrest; Colombians’ “hallucination” that they descended from Spain’s highest aristocracy: these were “stories a child might invent.”
The White Album is also a book about the American West, staking a claim in the rubble of the region’s defunct heroic stories. (Gunsmoke disappeared in 1975, and with it the unself-conscious Western.) Didion was deeply attracted to hydraulic engineering—“the only natural force over which we have any control out here is water”—and deeply distrustful of social engineering—coolly furious, for instance, at the bureaucratic arrogance behind an early carpool-lane project in Los Angeles. She was fascinated by the institution of the shopping mall and enchanted by the “hardness” of Georgia O’Keeffe, an “angelic rattlesnake.”
I grew up in the inland West wholly in this nonsense era. By the 1980s Didion’s California seemed to be the generative laboratory for the rest of America. Malls replaced downtowns, carpool lanes multiplied. While governor from 1967 to 1975, Ronald Reagan had commissioned the steroidal ranch house of a governor’s mansion Didion tours in The White Album (its ersatz adobe walls and vinyl-topped wet bar she describes as “insistently and malevolently ‘democratic’”); Reagan’s aggressively pacific successor, Jerry Brown, then refused to live in such splendor (also somehow an insistently and malevolently “democratic” act). Now Reagan was president, bringing Star Wars to life, and my parents were refusing to buy me G.I. Joes. Brown and Reagan appeared as contrapuntal icons in two versions of one of my favorite punk rock songs from back then, the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles,” which in 1979 had satirically imagined Brown as a “Zen fascist” U.S. president; in 1981, for obvious reasons, the band released a sequel, “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” Then Mötley Crüe and crew brought Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants, and the coke-and-hookers Sunset Strip, to ranch houses across the country. Didion describes Californians having to drain their swimming pools in a drought; this state of affairs sparked rapid innovation in the only sport that really drew me in as an ’80s kid: skateboarding. California über alles.
How have we coped growing up with only “flash pictures in variable sequence” as a story line? It seems telling somehow that The Simpsons recently surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest-running prime-time TV show. “I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults,” Didion writes. As The White Album turns thirty it comes to seem almost a book of Genesis for the period of American history I’ve happened to live through. Joan Didion could be a frazzled and eloquent Eve, seeing the new world as the harrowed skeptic from a more straightforward time and place.
“I am not the society in microcosm,” Didion writes at one point, yet reading her I get the sense that everything is a metonym, the world in a grain of sand. The White Album remains a memoir of an idiosyncratic woman in a strange era, but a bellwether one. This acutely aware yet distant soul needed to pick up the New York Times two days late in Bogotá, a day late or by hearsay in Honolulu, not at all on a book tour.
It’s hard, reading The White Album as a Classic, to avoid thinking of the author not as the expressionless, beautiful young woman smoking in a white Stingray on the new cover but as the frail septuagenarian whose biggest book sales and National Book Award came from The Year of Magical Thinking, the 2005 memoir about her husband’s death. When the author of The White Album writes about the New York Times, I flash forward to her horror as her agent calls the Times obituary editor on the night of John Gregory Dunne’s heart attack: “‘Obituary,’ unlike ‘autopsy,’ which was between me and John and the hospital, meant it had happened.” She wants to not tell the story, the obituary, in order that John might live—magical thinking, something a child might invent, but vastly sympathetic. When the young Didion writes of going on book tour with “six Judy Blume books and my eleven-year-old daughter,” I think of that daughter’s death less than thirty years later, more or less on the heels of Dunne’s. When she details the paranoid insanity of “White Album” L.A., I can’t help but think of the shades of Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, an Abel and Cain both incarcerated long after the fall of narrative.
The rest of us children of divorced words and meanings still oscillate between quixotic Sixties idealism and helpless cynicism looking at a country that becomes ever more plutocratic through our uncertainty. I’m often frantic to connect the flash pictures into a collage of references (Reagan… skateboarding… Crüe… ranch houses…), but it’s hard to live according to a collage narrative, or a Simpsons episode, or The White Album’s opening essay. Ultimately, I wonder if I won’t settle, as the book does, on a pre-Sixties personal resignation, living out the equivalent of Didion’s “quiet days in Malibu.” Her Genesis would account for that, too.
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