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Where I Was From

Joan Didion

Where I Was From

Author:Joan Didion

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 11/5/2003

For decades Joan Didion has been recognized as the voice of her generation, but she has never deserved the title more fully than now. In the 1960s and '70s, Didion's excursions around the fringes of her native California formed the basis for a new kind of reporting--stylistically mild, emotionally frank, intellectually ruthless--whose effect on the narrative drive of American journalism cannot be overstated. But perhaps it was just a matter of time until Didion turned her unremitting insight onto herself, as she has done with captivating grace in Where I Was From.

With a mullahlike apprehension of her environment, Didion has long understood the world to be a series of narratives, a string of assumptions we make about culture, politics, and society that allows us to see real events as plot devices, and people as characters caught in some unwritten script. These preconceptions propel American life, she has argued, and their workings are as inexorable as our knowledge that the cannon wheeled onstage in Act 1 will most surely go off in Act 3.

But in Where I Was From, Didion arrives at the reckoning that she herself has been holding fast to a certain clutch of assumptions, about her home, her family, and her own role as a Californian. She describes them as "confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely."

Indeed, she works away at them from practically every angle, interrogating all kinds of stories about where she's from--in literature, in the media, in family annals--in hopes of learning how these narratives bled together and crusted into a mythology. Slowly she flecks them apart: her family's tales of homesteading Sacramento in the 1850s (she marvels at how the women were "given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew"), the fiction of Jack London (she reveals him to be a nativist kook of a uniquely Californian stripe), and the fattening romanticism of Albert Bierstadt's landscape paintings (a mantle that has been picked up, she notes, by Sacramento's Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light).

From the 19th-century railroad boom to the 21st-century aerospace bust, Didion shows the lore of Californiana to be all part of the same haunting, habitual logic, a reasoning by which wagering everything on a faint hope seems prudent and walking away from everything you love in hard times is just good sense. She describes it finally as a sense of "the break, the dream of America, the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life."

And it is here where Didion proves herself to be a master of the slow reveal, as her study of California culture becomes a kind of intimate confession. She parses out passages from her own debut novel, 1963's Run River, to find that she chronicled in it a California that never quite existed. She recalls her family's cycle of buying, working, and selling land as part of a pattern of abandonment. And she comes gently to the realization that her own relationships have been shaped by a mythic frame, a mind-set by which you freely give up what you fear you may lose, because surrender is more honorable than defeat. Looking back on her decades of work, Didion has indeed always been both as flintily cold and as vulnerable as the California she describes in Where I Was From. And in both regards she remains as estimable as ever.

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