Joan Didion’s The White Album, thoughts

Nicole recommended me this book because we happened to be rehearsing and spending a lot of time on the street Didion lived on while writing and living what became this book. I couldn’t imagine how much it would resonate with not only my place, but my lack of place- my own current search and inability to find make sense of my life.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is the first sentence of Joan Didion’s The White Album. With this one sentence, she launches into a book of essays which enact and are about the “imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” It is also a book about a turbulent time in history… her personal history as well as a look at all the confusion of the American 1960’s (Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the birth of the Women’s Movement etc.)  … “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”
Since the realization of being cheated on/gaslit for the last 11 months, I have written almost every night as a way to try and understand my situation. I have always believed in the power of story and especially after a year of being denied by own, fiction has become a way for me to try and tell my truth, to write myself different endings. Reading about the acute dislocation, confusion, and traumatic loss of identity/society Didion experienced revealed to me the frayed seams of my own life currently and helped me come to terms with the fact that it might be ok if something never makes sense- that closure and confusion can coexist.
In the past 2 months, I’ve stayed on 12 different beds in 5 cities. It may not seem like much to others, but I have never felt such homelessness, such dislocation. I am so grateful to the many people who have taken me into their beds, homes, and hearts… providing safe spaces for me to recover… but that doesn’t change the displacement I feel. And of course, part of the reason for this displacement was the abrupt “loss” of my home… having lived with my ex-boyfriend for two years, I found out about the cheating, and from that day, never lived there again.
Perhaps the most displacement comes from a realization of the misplacement of one’s love. Losing someone who told me consistently he wanted to marry me, leaving the school structure for the first time in 12 years, and deciding to move has left me unanchored. But in the meandering tone of these essays, I sensed an odd catharsis at being unanchored, one I started to embrace while reading… to be unanchored is to be free.
Didion grapples with being unmoored in these essays. Just when you think she might be tying things together in an essay, you’re gutted by the last sentence which only unifies the book in confusion, in an inability to fashion coherence of one’s narrative and time period. The narrative is unnarrative. Her essay about Hollywood demystifies the film world by showing us how “every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing.” While it comes across like a very technical essay full of trivia about the business aspects of Hollywood, it is perhaps the most cynical (and perhaps personal) confession of a loss of belief in narrative, of the fact that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
I loved this book, particularly the chapter on Women, including essays on the beginning of the Women’s Movement, Doris Lessing, and Georgia O’Keefe. But there is a numbness and wistfulness which pervades the book…as if the whole thing is slightly damp, has weight. She writes, “I remember all the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Though I found such hope in the honest of her voice, the one truly hopeful moment in this entire book for me, was when her own detachment and confusion was overshadowed by her observation of the orchid-grower in the last essay. “It seemed to me that day that I had never talked to anyone so direct and unembarrassed about the things he loved.” This quiet observation seemed a way out of the numbness pervasive in the rest of the book. To do away with narrative, to live simpler, to love directly without embarrassment … maybe that is the only difference between living and waiting to die.

Ling Ling




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