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In which Netty peers into the darkness of The White Album …

July 11, 2011

We all get into certain careers for different reasons. Me, I got into journalism for two reasons: firstly, I was really good at English at high school, and secondly, I really had no discernible musical talent, which knocked on the head my first career choice: rock star.

So I decided that seeing I couldn’t do it, that I’d write about it instead.  Of course it was the late, great Frank Zappa who once opined: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.” I was also stymied by the fact that Rolling Stone kept knocking back my application.

All of which leads me to right here, right now, many, many years down the track – not a music journalist, but a journalist nonetheless, and not necessarily unhappy about that. Quite frankly, if I’d written about rock music for a living, I would have ended up like Lester Bangs (dead), or Nick Kent (not dead, but …). Sometimes the cards fall the way that they’re meant to.

Joan Didion is not a music journalist, either, although her 1968-1978 collection of essays is called The White Album (after The Beatles’ 1968 double opus) and, in one essay, she describes sitting in on an LA recording session by The Doors.  In her early 20s, with an arts degree under her belt, Didion won an essay competition sponsored by Vogue; first prize was a job at the magazine’s New York offices. She worked her way up to the position of associate features editor, met and married fellow journalist John Gregory Dunne  and moved back to her home state of California in the mid-1960s. She wrote for a number of prestigious publications, including Esquire, Life, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, where many of the essays in The White Album were first printed. In addition to her highly regarded non-fiction, Didion also has also published several works of fiction, memoirs and screenplays, the latter in collaboration with her husband. Not too shabby a CV at all, really …

Didion’s writing, as you’d expect from the timeframe in question, is very much in keeping with the spirit of the “new journalism” – the better-behaved first cousin of gonzo, although the two strains have much in common. Think Tom Wolfe, rather than Hunter S. Thompson. So the author is very much a presence in his/her work, bringing a certain amount of subjectivity to an otherwise non-fiction account of places, people and events, but primarily to enhance the writing rather than to detract from it. Its best proponents, as demonstrated here, do it very, very well indeed; in the hands of much poorer writers, it becomes an ego exercise of style over substance.

The White Album is divided into four parts. It opens with a lengthy essay of the same name, a rough, personal overview of the last years of the 1960s, and closes with “On The Morning After The Sixties” and “Quiet Days In Malibu”. They are appropriate bookends – all three pieces encapsulate the themes of the rest of this volume and detail Didion’s personal and professional journey through those years. I agree with Andy that the opening piece is the standout of this excellent, exemplary collection. My god, this woman can write – and how.  Anyone who can take such diverse, seemingly dry topics as water distribution, Los Angeles traffic operations, shopping malls and orchid production, put a unique spin on those subjects and glue the reader to the page in doing so, deserves plaudits.

The other thing Didion does exceptionally well is to insert herself into the proceedings of her tales, but never suffocatingly so. She maintains respect for the personal aspects of her own life, even whilst committing them to paper. To wit, from the essay “In The Islands”, which is at surface value an extended, multi-year travelogue about Hawaii. In the opening paragraphs, Didion is ostensibly on a family holiday, accompanied by her husband and three-year-old daughter. They are in lockdown in a hotel room, waiting for an expected tidal wave to hit in the wake of a 7.5 earthquake. But here’s the real undertow: “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of getting a divorce.” The revelation is both simple and stunning. Few further details are given. It is easy to dismiss such frankness, such cut-to-the-core honesty, in these days of Oprah-era, saturation-point celebrity confessions. There is no real resolution, but you get the feeling there may be a sliver of hope (“Maybe it can be all right, I say. Maybe it can, he says.”).

(For the record, Didion and Dunne were married until the latter’s death in 2003 at the age of 71; she wrote about it in her 2005 memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking.)

Didion also writes about a lifelong affliction with migraines, and a breakdown that saw her briefly hospitalised as a psychiatric outpatient: “(It) does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968,” she writes. She is also a Californian girl through and through, although more in Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ‘69” (Kim Gordon, of course, was another dark-side Californian girl) mould than the sunny, sanitised stylings of the Beach Boys. Caught between the wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean and the cruel, keening Mojave Desert, her personal geography helps explain Didion’s obsession with water (as chronicled in “Holy Water”, “At The Dam” and “Quiet Days In Malibu”).

Regardless of what subject she is tackling, Didion cuts to the chase factually, but paints evocative portraits with writing that is steeped in melancholy and menace, its measured cadence making for hypnotic reading. I’ve read a lot of damn fine reportage in my time; this is easily up there with the best of it.

Media is changing almost by the nanosecond these days, but I sincerely hope there will always be the space – and the readers – for this sort of lengthy, intricate reportage. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion notes in the opening line of this collection – and there is no better summation for its contents. And perhaps no better inspiration for anyone who wants to write.

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