Subjectivity and Puzzling Incidents in Joan Didion's White Album

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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What I find striking about Joan Didion's work is the way in which she uses her personal experience as a lens through which to view cultural phenomena. What interests me is where we draw the line between personal narrative and journalism. If the traditional purpose of journalism is to be objective, how then do we receive writers like Didion whose most characteristic tool is their subjectivity? Is Didion's work so imbued with her subjective outlook that it ceases to function as journalism? With these questions in mind, I wanted to look at a passage on page 45 in "The White Album." Didion writes:

I recall a conversation I had in 1970 with the manager of a motel in which I was staying near Pendleton, Oregon. I had been doing a piece for Life about the storage of VX and GB nerve gas at an Army arsenal in Umatilla County, and now I was done, and trying to check out of the motel. During the course of checking out I was asked this question by the manager, who was a Mormon: If you can't believe you're going to heaven in your own body and on a first-name basis with all the members of your family, then what's the point of dying? At that time I believed that my basic affective controls were no longer in tact, but now I present this to you as a more cogent question than it might at first appear, a kind of koan of the period.

This passage occupies one whole section of "The White Album" (section 14). What purpose does this section serve for Didion? Why does she include it? How does it fit into the rest of the piece? By relaying this private and seemingly nonsensical conversation, what is Didion trying to tell us? When Didion refers to it as a "koan of the period," why is it a nonsensical puzzle for that particular period and no other? Does the subjectivity of Didion's work serve a purpose, or is it merely a form of idiosyncratic decoration?

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Last updated 3 December 2006