Where I Was From , by Joan Didion. Alfred A. Knopf, 226 pages, $23.
I’m trying to imagine Joan Didion’s campaign for governor of California: a long silence punctuated by a sigh. She’s not running-but if she were, after the sigh you’d hear a sotto voce recitation of scattered facts about the Golden State, news the motley crowd of recall hopefuls would rather ignore. Ms. Didion is a California native, from old California stock, and to say that she’s ambivalent about her heritage is to put a kind construction on what is essentially a remarkable act of self-dispossession. Her new book, Where I Was From , is an oblique but cruelly effective indictment of California’s “core belief” in “unfettered individualism,” a locally prevalent and nationally influential component of the American character. (If she had wanted a less subtle title, she could have called the book I Don’t Live There Now .)
It’s a hodgepodge, jumbled snippets of memoir, art and literary criticism, sociological inquiry, historical analysis, investigative journalism and understated polemic. Ms. Didion is trying to work out her own “misapprehensions and misunderstandings,” trying to unravel “the confusions and contradictions in California life,” so a bumpy beginning is perhaps to be expected. The dislocations continue all along the way. Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce will rub elbows with the fabulously successful kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade. Selected writings of Frank Norris, Jack London and William Faulkner come under scrutiny. The Bohemian Club of San Francisco is visited, and also Irvine and Lakewood, Southern California cities developed from scratch after World War II. One of Ms. Didion’s own novels, Run River (1963), is dissected, unenthusiastically. The growth of the state’s prison population is contrasted with the decline of its university system. Ronald Reagan is barely mentioned; Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots of 1992 come up a couple of times, though only in passing; Hollywood is ignored. But Where I Was From makes sense in the end; it builds, it resonates.
Ms. Didion begins by invoking her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Scott, a hardy pioneer born in 1766, who died in what is now Arkansas. Elizabeth’s granddaughter made “the crossing” to California and Oregon. The courage and strength of those who accomplished that journey in the mid-19th century is self-evident, and Ms. Didion scarcely pauses to acknowledge it before exposing the flip side of that same fearsome determination: “They were women, these women in my family, without much time for second thoughts, without much inclination toward equivocation.” She quotes from a letter written by Virginia Reed, a young survivor of the Donner Party (“thank God we are the only family that did not eat human flesh”), who offers this advice to a cousin back East: “Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”
Second thoughts and equivocation come naturally to Joan Didion, who has a talent for dramatizing the workings of her own formidable intelligence. Soon enough, she’s contemplating the possibility that “the crossing” was not after all a “noble odyssey,” but instead “a mean scrambling for survival.” Having admitted the possibility that California’s founding myth is a lie, the next step comes naturally: She entertains the idea that “the settlement of the west, however inevitable, had not uniformly tended to the greater good, nor had it on every level benefited even those who reaped its most obvious rewards.” (At this point, she’s also chipping away at America’s founding myth.)
The nub of the “the confusions and contradictions” Ms. Didion grew up with is the fact that the supposedly rugged, self-reliant settlers depended at every turn on the largesse of the federal government to make their settlement viable. The railroad, financed by subsidies and land grants, opened California up to the rest of the world; it also transported the crops whose cultivation was made possible by another federally financed project of epic proportions: the damming of the rivers that carry the snowmelt and runoff from the mountains to the Pacific. Ms. Didion’s family settled in Sacramento, a city in a valley which is by now an almost entirely artificial environment, a “vast agricultural mechanism” engineered and largely paid for by the U.S. government. All this “in a state where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic.”
And what about the more recent past? How does the Californian “conviction of entitlement” square with “extreme if ungrounded individualism”? Ms. Didion answers this question in a typically roundabout way, with a reworking of one of her best pieces of journalism, her New Yorker report on the Spur Posse, a gang of Lakewood teenagers arrested for a variety of sex crimes in early 1993. A vast subdivision erected in the blink of an eye in 1950, Lakewood illustrates the truth about California-as Ms. Didion sees it-which is that the state is “an entirely dependent colony of the invisible empire in which … corporate and political interests are joined.” More specifically, the 17,500 dwellings in Lakewood (all one-story, each on a 50-by-100-foot lot) were built to house a labor pool for the aerospace industry and to provide customers for a giant, 256-acre shopping mall. As long as the McDonnell Douglas plant on the city line continued to employ its residents, Lakewood prospered (as did the mall). As long as the Cold War kept the defense contracts coming, Lakewood “proved Marx wrong” by managing to “increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it.” In this version of the American dream, adolescent males rule. Destined for jobs at McDonnell Douglas (or Lockheed or Hughes or the Long Beach naval station), they’re the cherished heroes of high-school playing fields until they become the breadwinner in a family of their own. That’s the idea, anyway, a suburban idyll cushioned by the “careless self-interest and optimism” of the California credo.
Ms. Didion writes, “The extent to which the postwar boom years confirmed [the] warp in the California imagination, and in the expectations of its citizens, would be hard to overestimate.” And when that boom ended in the early 1990’s, when hundreds of thousands of aerospace jobs simply evaporated, the good times came to an end in Lakewood. The military-industrial complex had no more use for that particular labor pool.
An artificial community implanted in “Southern California’s industrial underbelly,” its economy “sustained for forty years … by the good will of the federal government,” Lakewood bred a few monsters. Ms. Didion isn’t much interested in the specifics of the Spur Posse sex scandal; aggravated bullying by a handful of frustrated boys is merely an ugly symptom. Her eye is trained on a broader pattern of exploitation: a working-class neighborhood that was seduced into believing that it had achieved middle- or upper-middle-class status. She’s interested in the way Californians allow themselves to believe that they deserve their good luck, that in fact they themselves make their good luck. (California likes to be fooled,” says a character in Frank Norris’ The Octopus .) When Ms. Didion does glance at the kids caught up in the scandal and displayed on TV talk shows-“those blank-faced Lakewood girls, those feral Lakewood boys”-the description is devastating: “There were the dead eyes, the thick necks, the jaws that closed only to chew gum.”
She cuts up her victims with minimum flourish; you hardly catch a glimpse of the blade. Other writers can be just as quietly vicious, but here’s where Joan Didion is valuable to us all: She’ll slice herself, too-and with just as little fanfare. At the end of Where I Was From , she writes about the death of her father and mother and confesses (obliquely, as always) to her guilt: She escaped from California, from her parents, she turned her back on her heritage, spurned the “entire enchantment”-though in this day and age the “abandonment” can be accomplished by taking “the United redeye from San Francisco to Kennedy,” a quicker, less arduous version of “the crossing.” She can’t win, of course: By rejecting the “unfettered individualism” her mother prized as the “true California spirit,” she merely re-enacts the “breaking clean” of her pioneer forebears. “These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew …. The past could be jettisoned … and parents left behind.”
I found the end of Where I Was From disturbing and sad but also invigorating, because this lament, this tally of people and places and dreams lost and gone, does more than just dismantle local mythology and point an accusing finger at national delusions. Ms. Didion is urging us (obliquely!) to guard against the “slippage” between our self-perception and reality. And she’s leading by example: In a way that has nothing to do with geography, Ms. Didion has managed to break clean and achieve (on paper, anyway) a salutary individualism. She has written a book w
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.