"The White Album" as an objection to the California Experience

Paul Merrylees, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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Joan Didion begins her essay on the experience of California culture in the late 1960s with a list of her activities and occupation during the period, from the most broad to the most sanitary and minute:

During these five years I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen: I wrote a couple of times a month for one magazine or another, published two books, worked on several motion pictures; participated in the raising of a small child, and in the entertainment of large numbers of people passing through my house; made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, remembered to ask agents if any reduction of points would be pari passu with the financing studio, put lentils to soak on Saturday night for lentil soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver's license on time, missing on the written examination only the question about the financial responsibility of California drivers (12).

The tone she sets and sustains is one of rhythmic, clear-eyed reportage, casual and detached in tone, as attentive to the seemingly insignificant as to the compelling, exploring the possibility of, as she puts it "the imposition of a narritive line [or lines] upon disparate images", from the Murder of Ramon Novoarro and the Charles Manson killings to the recording of a Doors album to the imprisonment of Huey Newton and the radicalization of San Francisco State College, to her own psychiatric deterioration. What is the cumulative effect of the various details that she drops into the lap of the reader, calmly and one by one by one? Is "The White Album" more than a piece of reflection? Does it convey a sense of profound dissatisfaction with the state of the world as experienced? Could it be described as a kind of complaint against the real, or a satire in its jarringly ultra-sane, sedate treatment of atrocities and legendary acts?


Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York, New York: The Noonday Press 1979.

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