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  • Juan Chang, MHS

Flâneurs of the Present: A Review of The White Album

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Considered a classic of the New Journalism movement, The White Album by Joan Didion is a collection of essays from a time when there was no narrative: a collective sentiment of those who lived during the 1960s and 1970s and saw the moral certainty of preceding generations suddenly blurred. These essays can be read as fragments reflective of an ambiance of chaos and isolation. During the time period in which the essays were written, Didion, born in 1934 and a graduate of The University of California―Berkeley, felt betrayed by the teachings of her youth, none of which could explain 1960s California. At times, Didion merely reports what she encounters, as a bystander of her own reality. Didion’s keen sensibility allowed her to disconnect from the world and write a symptomatic interpretation of her times. The world, and Didion personally, were suffering simultaneous meltdowns, so she observed.

“Water is important to people who don’t have it and the same is [true] for control.”

Didion writes about her mundane obsessions on subjects such as aqueducts, highway traffic control and even shopping-center theory; these make The White Album a peculiar, yet factual depiction of the hectic ‘60s. Through these obsessions, motifs start to appear. As she writes about the narcotic use on the highways of Los Angeles, the breakdown of her marriage in Hawaii, cult leaders and the assassination of Sharon Tate and five other at the hands of the Manson Family, Didion’s motivation to remain oblivious to her surroundings becomes clear. In an attempt to understand the environment, Didion keeps searching for an explanation‒a narrative to explain the chaos of the sixties. Yet, the narrative is buried deep in the madness of the time period. The prose lures the reader into a twist of unrelated events, casually dropping names of old movie stars, where the moral of the journey hides at the end of the chapter.

“Where are we heading? Where were we heading?”

Didion’s work doesn’t try to answer questions about where the future may lead―

something that everyone, in one way or another, wants to know―but merely to pose the question to the reader. When the current events are askew of expectation, what can we do? Based on these views, Didion wrote essays, articles and conducted interviews to find a common thread that may sew everything together. However, there was no common thread, rather, a mosaic of misfit actions which Didion is left to ponder. In retrospect, the book's central lesson is that it is acceptable to not know what to do in the present, to be detached. We should seek a narrative that naturally unfolds for us, as opposed to arguing for one of our own inventions or agendas. Be descriptive, not prescriptive. Perhaps the only way to do it, is to recede into the background looking on inconspicuously. Even with her own personal insinuated into the larger collection, Didion’s work feels like this: a peephole into one of the few times in history when society was perhaps as chaotic and divisive as our own.

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