Breaking up the Flow of Narrative "The White Album"

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In "The White Album," Didion's writing consists of fragments, song lyrics, major shifts in tone from scientific to self-reflexive; in short, anything to break up what might be construed by the reader as the flow of "narrative." At the same time, the separate sections of her essay might be said to exist as mini-narratives; small vignettes -- many of which, such as the Doors recording session or the Huey Lewis interview, have clear beginnings and endings. Even the individual sections are not so disparate: certain themes and issues like her attempts and failures to create coherence from her experiences, and her fears of illness, could be interpreted as plots or story-lines that unify the essay.

In a way, Didion's writing is caught between several sets of opposing tensions. She struggles over her disillusionment with the pervasive tendency to resort to narrativity in order to relate experience, but she is hard-pressed to find an alternative means of expression. Her efforts to change style are unsuccessful: the seemingly trivial and random lists of what she packs for business trips themselves reveal a person who "heard the cues, knew the narrative;" (35) and the scientific language, she admits, either contains a narrative or is entirely useless (as in her neurologists advice to "Lead a simple life...Not that it makes any difference we know about" (47).

Didion's writing persona is also caught between a desire to both establish and undermine its own credibility as a commentator on life in the late 60's. She does not hide the fact that she was a central figure in the popular culture of the day, and in the narrative-forming establishments of LIFE magazine and Hollywood. Yet at the same time she claims that she believed her "basic affective controls were no longer intact." Her continued insistence that her vision may have been clouded by neurological problems makes questionable her authority as a non-fiction writer.

To what extent does Didion, in her writing, avoid "the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images" (11)?

How does she serve as a commentator on the '60s and how are the '60s used to comment on her?

If the essay uses narrative forms to decry narrativity, does this change its effectiveness?


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

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Last modified 3 December 2006