One of the best books I read last year was Joan Didion’s essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I appreciated Didion’s keen observations and her blending of personal observation with commentary on the culture. It felt significant and hardly at all dated. I was excited to read more of her essays, hoping to gain insight into our recent past and enjoy some good writing. I’m afraid that The White Album was a disappointment.
Didion’s writing is as good as in the earlier collection. She’s great at picking up on telling details and painting a clear picture of a scene. But these essays felt slight, rarely delving into the personalities and places to present an in-depth portrait, as in her profiles of Joan Baez and John Wayne in Slouching. Instead, she flits from point to point, dealing glancing blows on her subjects.
The title essay is a good example of the technique. It’s meant, I think, to evoke the fractured mood of the 60s and 70s. She presents different vignettes—a criminal trial, a Doors recording session, Huey P. Newton, a packing list, the Manson murders, a broken ribs. Some of these are several pages long, but many are only a page or two. Sections, like the one on Newton, seem to be on the cusp of something interesting, but she never gets there. That’s how this whole collection felt.
There were some gems and some essays that were almost gems. I liked “In Bed,” about her experience with migraine. A lot of what she describes would be familiar to anyone who has suffered chronic pain and struggled to get people to understand just what it’s like. “Many Mansions,” about the California governor’s mansion, was entertaining. I wanted more of “Good Citizens,” another series of vignettes, this one about Hollywood political activists, Nancy Reagan, and the local Jaycees. The essay on “The Women’s Movement” was provocative, and although I didn’t necessarily agree with it, I was glad to get to something with a strong point of view.
Many of the essays focus on California life or on Didion’s travels. A few glance at quirky areas of interest—the Hoover dam or shopping malls. In a lot of cases, I think being 40 years distant from the subject matter was a problem. If there were some profundities between the lines, I was too far away to see them.