Didion's California

William Bostwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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Didion presents California as a land balanced on the edge between chaos and order. The natural environment constantly threatens its inhabitants with earthquakes, floods and fires while the man-made environment of super-highways provides a white-knuckle driving experience at once horribly dangerous and mystically exhilarating. This allure of such seemingly untamable systems as freeway traffic and Southern California's water is a common theme in Didion's essays. She is drawn to their disorder by both the rush of excitement such chaos can give and also by the natural urge to control what is wild. Didion, like the state she describes, is caught between Back Door Man and the backyard pool. Didion explores two organizations, Caltrans and the California State Water Project. Each one exerts control over a world it knows only through computer outputs, and each one fascinates Didion.

I stayed as long as I could and watched the system work on the big board with the lighted checkpoints. The Delta salinity report was coming in on one of the teletypes behind me. The Delta tidal report was coming in on another. The earthquake board, which has been desensitized to sound its alarm (a beeping tone for Southern California, a high-pitched tone for the north) only for those earthquakes which register at least 3.0 on the Richter scale, was silent. I had no further business in the room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still. [66]

In the windowless room beyond the closed door a reverential hush prevails. From six A.M. until seven P.M. in this windowless room men sit at consoles watching a huge board flash colored lights. "There's the heart attack," someone will murmur, or "we're getting the gawk effect." . . . The Loop has electronic sensors embedded every half-mile out there in the pavement itself, each sensor counting the crossing cars every twenty seconds. The Loop has its own mind, a Xerox Sigma V computer which prints out, all day and night, twenty-second readings on what is and what is not moving in each of the Loop's eight lanes. It is the Xerox Sigma V that makes the big board flash red when traffic out there drops below fifteen miles an hour. It is the Xerox Sigma V that tells the Operations crew when they have an "incident" out there. An "incident" is the heart attack on the San Diego, the jackknifed truck on the Harbor, the Camero just now tearing out the Cyclone fence on the Santa Monica. "Out there" is where incidents happen. The windowless room at 120 South Springs is where incidents get "verified." [79-80]


1. Didion is enraptured by the power she feels when controlling water from above, or from some outside observation point, but when on the freeway, by the feeling of being within the action -- what she calls "actual participation." Why? What is different between the two systems that can explain this change in attitude?

2. What is the significance of the computer as a key element of both systems? Specifically in the Caltrans example, does it have any connections to the Big Brother-type paranoia Didion expresses in this and other essays?

3. The only information from the world "out there" that enters these control rooms comes by way of a computer. Car accidents, earthquakes and other intensely personal phenomena are reduced to colored lights, beeps and quoted terminology. Going along with question 2, what does this tell us about the culture in and about which Didion writes?

4. Didion confesses a profound detachment from the world. She says in "In the Islands" that she feels "radically separated from the ideas that interest most people." Is her desire to be an active part of such large systems as the freeway and the waterworks a means of coping with this separation?

5. Didion says that she has "stopped looking for logic" in such odd occurrences as the possibly narcotics-related phone call she gets from a stranger. Furthermore, she is fascinated by The Door's interest in "activity that appears to have no meaning." How can we reconcile Didion's taste for the chaotic with her desire to basically "play God" by controlling Southern California's water supply?

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

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Last modified 3 December 2006