With a title echoing the unofficial title of an album that the Beatles recorded in 1968, The White Album comprises mainly essays previously published in some form in various magazines, with each essay showing Didion’s insight, precise diction, and ability to create powerful images.
The first part of The White Album is also called “The White Album” and includes only one essay, again called “The White Album” (1968-1978). That long essay is Didion’s fifteen-section, associational consideration of why she could not tell herself the stories she needed to survive, why she could not find a “narrative” to connect the images confronting her when she lived in Hollywood and pondered such events as the Manson gang’s murders, a recording session by the Doors, visits to Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and a student strike at San Francisco State.
The second part, “California Republic,” consists of seven shorter essays. The first of them, “James Pike, American” (1976), presents the late Episcopal bishop of California as a man of “mindless fervor” whose idea of reinventing the world was typical of the 1960’s in the United States. “Holy Water” (1977), the second of the essays, is Didion’s account of her fascination with the mass movement of water, especially in California. Among the other essays in this part, particularly notable is “Many Mansions” (1977), contrasting the new, sprawling, unoccupied...
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Joan Didion’s novels and journalistic writings, which express the dilemma of contemporary society, are difficult to dismiss. To some, Didion is a keen observer of American life; to others, she is merely a neurotic California writer, expressing the faddish, rootless character of a state still viewed by many as having a distinct, atypical voice in America. Yet, however one might view Didion’s writing, the impact of her voice and the skill with which she relates her impressions cannot be denied. Her collection The White Album drew critical praise for capturing the national neurosis which became most evident during the period in which these selections were written and about which they speak: 1966-1978. The reading public responded enthusiastically as well, making the book a rapid best-seller.
The title piece, the strongest in the collection, serves as an introduction to the volume. Didion begins “The White Album” by stringing together events which, because of their lack of cohesion, appear absurd; she then presents her thesis that “We live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ’ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her own experiences illustrate that this narrative line can no longer be imposed on our lives. Between 1966 and 1971, she sees her responses as “improvised,” yet she recognizes that her education prevents her from functioning this way, without a “plot.” She requires a “script,” a narrative line, a movie, not “flash pictures in variable sequences.” It is this conflict which lies at the heart of the article and loosely unifies the entire collection.
Didion develops the title essay through film technique, offering prose snapshots of people and events which she considers emblematic of the period, juxtaposed against her own psychiatric reports (flash cuts). She begins with Robert and Thomas Scott Ferguson, two young brothers tried and convicted for the 1968 murder of silent film actor Ramon Novarro. Reading the transcripts of the murder trial, Didion finds that she cannot “bring the picture into focus.” The testimony of the young men and those who have known them does not follow the cause-and-effect rules of life which we have learned.
Didion notes a similar incongruity in her encounter with Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. During Newton’s 1968 trial for murdering two policemen and kidnapping a bystander, she went to see him, interested in the issue he represented. However, she finds that Newton unintentionally has become a cause. It is Cleaver, with his press card from Ramparts, who directs the interview, pulling from Newton statements which can be used as slogans for the cause. Didion, in considering an excerpt from the testimony of a nurse who spoke to Newton at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital where he went after being wounded in the gun battle, first thinks she is viewing “a collision of cultures, a classic instance of an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level.” But she destroys her own theory when she realizes that Newton himself was enrolled in the Kaiser Health Plan.
The episode which embodies the absurdity of the social situation more strongly and personally than any other is the Manson murders. Living in Los Angeles, Didion hears of the murders immediately and listens to the telephone conversations filled with speculation. Although she expects the response, it is frightening to know that “no one was surprised.” Didion relates many insignificant yet personal associations with the murders: Roman Polanski, whose wife was one of the murder victims, spilled a glass of red wine on the dress Didion was married in; she and Polanski are godparents to the same child. The events appear absurd. Furthermore, Didion’s relationship with Linda Kasabian, one of the principal witnesses in the trial, is full of those “little ironies so obvious as to be of interest only to dedicated absurdists.” Instead of talking of the murders, they talk of Linda’s background. The avoidance of the central issue unsettles...
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