Rest in Joy, Joan Didion

In Memoriam, A Review of The White Album

One of my professors loved her work and spoke about it at length. I had a more difficult time appreciating Joan Didion’s writings.

In fact, I was required to read over 50 books during that three-year MFA program, and The White Album was the most challenging to get through.

I think I know why …

I first read The White Album the summer before I jumped into my graduate classes, along with several other books I knew were on the must-read list.

I started and finished several other essay collections and memoirs in the time it took me to complete Didion’s book.

Although I began with The White Album, it took the longest to wade through. Every time I tried to get through a chapter, I ended up only reading a few pages.

I couldn’t figure out why Joan Didion’s book felt so dense and uninviting, especially considering the subject matter.

But in The White Album, Joan Didion’s tone, though not caustic, steers close to it; if not jaded, at the least it is tired.

Her voice feels weary …

As if she writes because she has to, because she is expected to, but she finds no joy in it.

I believe this unmistakable chord of weariness would remain throughout The White Album even if she hadn’t predicated the book with information in the first section of the first chapter that denotes possible reasons for this weariness.

Didion adds a quote from a psychiatric report that describes her and makes statements such as,

“Emotionally, patient has alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings,”

“Patient’s thematic productions … emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her.”

From The White Album

Joan Didion’s personality was, according to the psychiatrist:

“In process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses and increasing inability … to mediate the world of reality” (14).

From The White Album

This state that was described so starkly in the psychiatric report pervades throughout Joan Didion’s book, in chapter after chapter that, although descriptive and insightful, are written in monochrome.

One such example is Didion’s description of watching The Doors record a track. Though she does not say as much, the reader gets the impression that she does not want to be there. Even though she states, “The Doors interested me” in comparison to her “minimal interest” in other rock-and-roll bands, her interest seems synonymous with boredom and discomfort (21).

Perhaps this effect is accomplished by the way she describes the room:

“… the studio was too cold and the lights were too bright and there were masses of wires and banks of the ominous blinking electronic circuitry with which musicians live so easily …”

The White Album, page 22

And the food:

“… paper bags half filled with hard-boiled eggs and chicken livers and cheeseburgers and empty bottles of apple juice …”

The White Album, page 22

Perhaps her disinterest is made clear by her final addition to the section:

“It would be some weeks before the Doors finished recording this album. I did not see it through.”

The White Album, page 25

As in other places, the tone of Joan Didion’s narrative feels as if it was brushed onto the page without the color of emotion – narrated by a detached and emotionless observer.

A few sections of the book engaged me, as if written to give a taste of the way Didion can write if she chose to. Her chapter, “In Bed,” is one such example.

In her description of the migraines she experiences, she writes of her own history with migraines, and of both the heredity and psychology of migraines. She describes how they affect her:

“I will drive through red lights, lose the house keys, spill whatever I am holding, lose the ability to focus my eyes or frame coherent sentences.”

The White Album, page 170

She also gives some insight as to the personality of someone who suffers migraines:

“… perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.”

The White Album, page 171

The beauty of this brief chapter is the living color with which the reader experiences Didion – her humor and sheer brilliance as a writer. She ends the chapter by describing the end of a migraine, after which she experiences a “pleasant convalescent euphoria” during which she will “open the windows and feels the air, eat gratefully, sleep well” (172).

In this chapter, Didion seems the most alive in spite of her pain. 

A majority of the chapters in the book, however, convey an attitude of disillusionment and disappointment with the whole thing called life, as though she does not even want to try to muster up an interest in what she is writing.

Her descriptions read as though a camera is focusing on the highlights and low points of the era. Didion drops names or companies, titles, movies, books, and politicians – yet fails to fill in the gaps.

Perhaps because of her assumption that everyone will know what and who she knows.

Perhaps as another taste of her boredom, evidenced by a neglect to give sufficient information for the ease and hospitality of the reader. 

Much of Joan Didion’s narrative lacks hospitality, which is probably an odd thing to even be looking for in a book. Still, hospitality is apparent in many of the works I read, an invitation: “This is my world, this is how the world looks to me.”

Sometimes the invitation comes with a hint of embarrassment at sharing such private thoughts about the world and one’s small place in it.

Yet it often comes with a hope that someone will care: “Sit beside me, if you would, and see the world through my eyes so I don’t feel alone.”

Hospitable writing opens into a giving of space, a welcoming, a sharing.

With The White Album, I only feel that openness in short stints, almost as if it is accidental and then the wall goes up again.

Is it a façade of boredom to hide the inner turmoil and questions, and perhaps a sense of disillusionment with that overall period?

I really do not know.

Joan Didion gives another glimpse of herself in a later chapter, mentioning a marriage nearly at its end. She rushes to Hawaii for a week to try to salvage it:

“We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

The White Album, page 133

The stark statement is written as if no other couple has ever faced disillusionment, has ever stood at the precipice of separation (without the privilege of a week in Hawaii to try to fix things).

Sometime during their “restorative week in paradise” she states, “Maybe it can be alright” and her husband agrees “Maybe” (136), and at least at this moment, the understated, colorless exchange is sufficient for the narrative.

Perhaps I judged Joan Didion too harshly, though. Perhaps I expected too much.

Maybe, even, a part of me is envious.

After all, winning an essay contest in a magazine and watching that launch a career in writing would be a dream for me.

And after such success, I feel like it is a responsibility of a writer to at least offer hospitality to the reader. To open a window, to let some light in.

But maybe Joan Didion did not have the wherewithal to do that during her sojourn. Maybe she offered what she offered, monochrome and all, because it was the best she could do.

Maybe, between the migraines and the marital problems, the “pessimism” and the “alienation,” she really was tired.

And now, having come to the end of her sojourn, I hope she can rest in peace.

What is more, Joan Didion, may you rest in joy.