Crippling Sensitivity

The White Album By Joan Didion Simon and Schuster, $10.95

JOAN DIDION approaches writing like an impressionist painter. She places small dots quietly, precisely, to form distinct images. But step back from the painting, and the scene blurs. It is as if she washed her canvas with color, softening the detail, leaving an intense but somehow fleeting emotional moment. Like the Impressionists, she seldom makes judgements, preferring to let her images capture and sway the reader.

The White Album is Didion's latest collection of these images--20 essays written from 1968 to 1978. It is a brilliant albeit occasionally disjointed collage of impressions, written with her customary journalistic eye for detail and infused with emotion. The essays discuss the '60's, portray Didion and others, and sketch California life with and deadly accuracy.

Although many of these essays demonstrate her obsession with control, The White Album's one major flaw is an interior disorder. Each individual essay is superbly crafted, but together they leave no one, coherent impression, no sense of decision about the subjects she treats.

The book resembles what Didion tells us about herself. In the revealing and brilliant title essay, she describes a list of articles she packs when traveling. She meticulously follows the list, but always forgets her watch. She shamefacedly asks people for the time every half hour until she resorts to calling her husband at home. Her passion for asserting control, for putting things--and herself--in order is always foiled.

But the same sensitivity and emotional impetuosity that defeat her make her writing so effective. The book's disjointedness is at times a very deliberate reflection of Didion's own reactions to the years she describes. Her first essay, "The White Album," breaks into 15 vignettes; she cuts from image to image, splicing and assembling them. She views the '60's themselves as a series of improvisations on a discarded, script, in a passage that reflects the tone of both the era and her book:


I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what is saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience

Her cinematic organization is perhaps most effective in "The White Album," and most strained in "In the Islands," where she leaps from a resort hotel to a graveyard for Vietnamese soldiers to James Jones, with no clear direction. In this first essay, she describes a Doors recording session, a college protest, a dress she bought for the star witness in the Sharon Tate murder trials, and creates a whirling kaleidoscope. She draws no conclusion because she cannot--her memories are too vivid to allow a comforting generality.

PERHAPS IT IS this hesitancy to generalize, to offer weighty and solemn judgements, that makes Didion's writing so evocative. Instead of pronouncements, she offers reportage. She focuses on an incident and notes every detail in uncluttered, harsh prose. Didion also has the reporter's curiosity about how things work. She investigates how orchids are tended, how freeways are monitored, how lifeguards live, how dams work, the philosophy and history of shopping malls. She is always honest in her examinations of a setting or person. She dams through accuracy, not forceful moral argument. In "Bureaucrats," for example, she perfectly captures officials' self-importance and insularity. Placing contradictory statistics after bureaucrats' fatuous proclamations, she quietly pillories them. But she can nevertheless convey their own sense of misguided sincerity.

This empathy graces all her writing. She is especially effective in describing the dispossessed, social outcasts or loners whose frustrated dreams fueled the violence and anger of the '60's. In "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik," she focuses on bikers and a young girl who wants to be a movie star. The bikers' childish excesses outrage her, yet she captures their alienation and compares it with the futile dreams of an aspiring star who desperately wants to be known.

She describes a Junior Chamber of Commerce convention, a group of stolid conventional young burghers who are genuinely puzzled by the furor around them. Why don't students wat a Jaycee group on campus? Why can't the girl who takes a full page ad in Daily Variety to advertise her availability as a star realize her dream? Why do bikers gangbang women, trash stores? Didion answers:

It occurred to me finally that I was listening to true underground, the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have their time. It was not.

Didion is drawn to these people because she too is dispossessed--far more profoundly alienated than many of those she writes about. In "The White Album" she includes a wildly amusing, verbose but acute psychoanalytic profile of herself. The psychiatrist tags her as deeply alienated and fatalistic. Didion herself confirms this analysis in "In the Islands." She introduces herself to the reader, noting:

You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.

Her essays and novels reflect this fatalism, but she is nonetheless alive to others' sorrows and enthusiasms. The destruction of Amado's orchids in "Quiet Days in Malibu" by a flash fire confirms Didion's view of live as an unpredictable but inevitable series of large and small tragedies. In "The White Album," Didion notes that neither she nor her friends was surprised at the news of the Sharon Tate murders. She walks through her days anticipating horror, sporadically paralyzed by migraines, dreaming of "the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot...the freeway sniper who feels 'real bad' about picking off the family of five."

DIDION'S SENSITIVITY--the very quality that powers her writing--defeats her in the end. She is mired in an emotional bog; the weight of her evocative detail does not allow her to stand back and assess the images she conjures. The White Album's collection of little insights does not add up to one bit one. Didion writes about an intensely debated, copiously documented period, but she doesn't try to impose any order on the chaos. Didion cannot ultimately discipline her own sensitivity, and therein lies the failure of this tightly

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