The dream life of California

Joan Didion’s collected works reveal a state “in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension”

Joan Didion.

Joan Didion.

Courtesy Of Everyman's Library

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle

Should California ever tumble into the ocean, as our doomsayers claim it will, Joan Didion certainly will play a part in reassembling it—or at least remembering it. After all, the Sacramento native has long been our reigning sociologist of symbols. For four decades now, Didion has run the gamut of California life. She squinted at the landscape, our obsession with water, the movies, our cars, California’s reverence of prestige and our fabulously well-developed self-regard. If Kevin Starr’s seven-volume study charted Golden State history, Didion revealed the stories we tell ourselves. Here, each one of her pieces says, is the dream life of California.

And what a dream it has been! From the crush of the forty-niners to the big-tent extravaganza of the movies to the election of a first movie-star governor, the first 125 years of California’s history encouraged the belief that tall tales came true. That here the rules of East Coast life did not apply. As a young freelance writer, Didion took one look at this terrain and realized it said a lot about America and the collective bargain we have made with the past. Didion has collected all these pieces, and everything that came after it, in a new 1,122-page collection, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, which includes all of Didion’s nonfiction up to last year’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her tremendous memoir about grief.

Revisiting this work, it is striking all over again how central being from Sacramento was to Didion’s identity as a writer. It looms in her early work as a kind of weigh station between the East Coast and the West, between the past and present. “You might protest that no family has been in the Sacramento Valley for anything approaching always,” Didion wrote in “Notes from a Native Daughter,” one of her earliest published essays. But there is a reason for this suspension of time, she argues: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Sentences like that one explain why Didion’s nonfiction holds up so well over time. They seem to grow out of the landscape, the way Faulkner’s own sentences tried to unchoke themselves from the wisteria vine of Southern history. While Faulkner’s obsession with the past led him to the pathologies of Southern identity, Didion’s notion of California as the frontier of the American Dream led her to public life, realms where people took big gambles: politics and the movies, crime, big-city life, and the revolutionary corners of ’60s counterculture. It is no accident that one of her most famous essays tackles the Hoover Dam. Is there any act of hubris larger than redirecting a river?

<span style="font-style:normal">We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfictions</span> by Joan DidionNew York: Everyman’s Library$30: 1122 pages

In her first book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she created a first-person voice to guide us through this maze of outsized personalities and outsized deeds. This voice was coy and vulnerable, but backed up by a steely skepticism. Didion was, after all, a Californian who somehow found herself “back east” at a very young age working for Vogue, and each adventure was to be her last on her tour through gimcrack New York. “For that reason,” she wrote, “I was most comfortable in the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged.”

Like all the best writers, however, Didion did not let herself rest in a zone of comfort. She knew that once you left home, especially if that home had been in California, “home” became an invisible city (one section of her first book is called “Seven Places of the Mind”)—the real one had migrated into the mind. So, Didion went on to profile black panthers, Governor Ronald Reagan and the Doors. She visited and lived in and wrote books about Hollywood, El Salvador and Miami, applying her great synthesizing intelligence and moody observatory prose to each with increasing power.

A Didion piece doesn’t just put you there; it gets you under the skin of the place, shows how it hides and conceals its essential histories. Living in California had taught her as much. It makes sense then that Didion would turn out to be a first-rate political reporter late in life. She was used to peering behind the scrim of things, and she always seemed able to get there. “My only advantage as a reporter,” she once wrote, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.”

Regarding Henry and Political Fictions showed how much damage this small quiet reporter could do the scrim of power. Read Didion’s piece on electioneering in California and you will never think of a photo-op the same again. She hasn’t given up this role yet, however. Her most recent essay, which went to press in the New York Review of Books as this volume shipped to book stores, examines the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney. “The question of where the President gets the notions known to the nation as ‘I’m the decider’ and within the White House as ‘the unitary executive theory’ leads pretty fast to the blackout zone that is the Vice President and his office,” she wrote.

After reading through this entire volume, from the politics of home to the politics of politics, Didion’s last two books—Where I Was From, the memoir of her family’s migration to California, and The Year of Magical Thinking—stand out like explosions of candor. In the pages of this magnificent book you can watch her sharpening the knives of her sentences on the whetstone of power, landscape and America’s most treasured myths. In the end, she turned them on her own life. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live makes one thing abundantly clear: We should have known she wouldn’t flinch.