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The White Album – Andy breaks on through with Joan Didion

July 6, 2011

When you grow up wanting to be a journalist there are certain things you hope your future holds. Being an investigative reporter for a broadsheet, perhaps. Getting your mug on 4 Corners. Reviewing movies, books, the theatre and being widely regarded as the best in your field. Becoming an overseas correspondent, preferably TV but newspapers’d do, and giving the world the real story from Palestine. Interviewing famous people and maybe, oh, I don’t know, getting books of those interviews published. Maybe doing a Hemingway or an Orwell and morph from a successful journalist into bestselling literary sensation. Then there are the things that, when you’re growing up, don’t even cross your mind as being part of your future. Writing House of the Week stories for a regional weekly’s real estate pages. Laying out a four-page feature about a new tractor. Compiling movie listings. Check-subbing headlines for stories about insanely fat people and their feeders.

There is a fence here, and I will let you guess which side of it I landed on. Joan Didion landed on the other side.

OK, so she gets migraines three or four times and month and she’s had what sounds like a pretty spectacular nervous breakdown but hey. For her career I’d cop that and more. The Doors, the Black Panthers, the Manson murders, Sammy Davis Jr’s house, Nancy Reagan, “travel” pieces (the term does them no justice) from Hawaii and Colombia, critiques of Doris Lessing (hilarious) and Georgia O’Keefe (slightly less engaging, simply because I’m not familiar with the artist). Meditations on Christian America, the Women’s Movement (surprisingly and insightfully critical), Hollywood, the aforementioned migraines. She writes this stuff brilliantly and then she gets it published in places like Esquire and the New York Times Book Review. Meanwhile Andy wonders whether he needs to ask his boss if “pubes” are OK on the letters page. Sigh.

My favourite chapter/article in The White Album is the first one, after which the book is named. Didion gets to hang out in a recording studio with three of the Doors waiting for Morrison to arrive. Waiting hours, of course. He arrives, eventually, but he doesn’t do much singing. Didion gets to interview one of the women involved in the Manson murders. Didion interviews members of the Black Panthers. Didion observes the student protests that tore California apart in the late ’60s. Didion ponders her breakdown, and the weirdness of living “in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive”. And she does it all with an oddly sympathetic detachment. There is no hint of the “objectivity” journalists sometimes claim to exercise, which you’re taught in university is impossible to achieve; there is, though, a sense of balance and fairness. She sympathises with the Panthers and the revolutionary students even as she gently critiques their words and their actions. And she involves herself in the stories she tells but never obtrusively. Interestingly the closest she gets to anything that could be described as “objectivity” is in the sections in which she talks about her own life.

If “The White Album” is my favourite piece in the collection the most surprisingly engaging was “Bureaucrats”. This details the operations of Caltrans, or the Californian Department of Transportation. Keeping in mind that the piece was written in 1976 (the book itself was published in 1979), its depiction of a government agency trying to get cars off LA’s inner-city roads, and get people into buses and car-sharing arrangements – and failing dismally, monstrously – is fascinating. And I don’t even drive. I would love to know what’s happening there now, 35 years later. Did they ultimately get some of those cars off the road? Everything I know about LA suggests not.

Doris Lessing is a writer Netty and I have occasionally toyed with putting on the Reading Challenge book list. Not any more. Didion’s demolition of Lessing is so brutally effective, and so hilariously funny, that I don’t want to spoil it by saying anything more. It’s obviously unfair of me to assume Didion’s right and not try reading some of Lessing’s work to give her a chance to defend herself. But, er… I’m opting for obviously unfair.

The only piece of the collection that didn’t quite grab me (Netty “got it”, she tells me) is the one about water distribution. Funnily enough though, Didion essentially acknowledges that she’s fighting a losing battle about half way through the piece. “Not many people I know,” she says, “carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries.” Roads, yes, migraines, yes, strange Episcopal clerics, yes, shopping malls, yes, even dams, yes. But water distribution? Not so much.

Didion’s book is one of the best we’ve read this year so far, so it’s bizarre for me to say it didn’t fill me with the desire to read every last word she’s written. Perhaps that has something to do with the essay format itself; I’m not sure. Didion has written fiction, too, though I’ve never bumped into her on any shop’s bookshelves. A couple of her non-fiction works pique my interest – one about America post-9/11, and one about the (other) breakdown she had following her husband’s death. That book, A Year of Magical Thinking, has itself been toyed with for the Reading Challenge. I might have to do some research, because if any of her other earlier work deals in more detail with the ’60s – an era you’re not supposed to care about these days, apparently – I’m there.

PS: I have actually done a few things other than check headlines about fat chicks. I’ve interviewed a few people and even had the opportunity to rant a bit. There are novelists, there are actors, there’s an unsurprising number of homosexuals, there’s a cheese grater. If you can be arsed you’ll find some of my bollocks here.The page was set up by my brother, incidentally, who is marginally older than me but infinitely hipper, which presumably explains why he describes the page as a “coolection” of articles rather than a more straightforward collection. Or maybe he’s just a bad typer. Not sure. Thanks anyway, bro.

PPS: I’ve also interviewed Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. Annoyingly I’ve just realised that interview doesn’t seem to be on this page. No idea why. Might have to sort that out.

PPPS: Sorry for the shameless cross/self-promotion.

PPPPS: It’s a fucking blog, for fuck’s sake. Why am I apologising?

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