South and West: From a Notebook
“an author who has carved out her own territory and made the personal essay into a thing of beauty.”
What a joy it is to read Joan Didion’s prose, not only because of what she writes about, but also how she writes. Indeed, as she explains in “California Notes,” the shorter of the two pieces in this slim volume, “The story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, and doesn’t figure.”
Didion could and did make almost anything, everything, and nearly everybody fascinating, as she demonstrated dramatically in The White Album (1979), a collection of her essays about the Black Panthers, the Doors, Charles Manson, and that behemoth that has stalked her nearly all her life: California.
Born and raised in California and a California girl before she became an L.A. woman, Didion writes, at the very end of “California Notes,” that she is “at home in the West.” Didion had and still has a way of looking at California and the West that makes her writing distinctive, memorable, and like no other. A reader who picks up this book, and turns to page one, without a glance at the author’s name, knows that it has to be by Didion.
“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death,” she writes. Even someone unfamiliar with her style, if one can call it that, surely feels in the presence of an intensely aware observer who notices the smallest of details and who sooner or later returns to her preoccupation with those twin themes: sex and death, or death and sex. Sometimes it’s not easy to know which comes first in her world.
Not long ago, I asked Didion. “Where would you go if you wanted to see signs of the future?” She sighed a long sigh and said, “I used to know. I don’t anymore. Once upon a time I thought one could see the future in the American South.” I had thought that she might have said “California,” but by the time I asked her my question she had given up the notion that California provided a window into tomorrow or the next day. For a time, she thought that the cults of the Golden State presage the future. Then, that idea passed.
Near the end of South and West, Didion writes, “I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it,” as though finding the past would also provide a passageway to a future as yet unseen and unheard. In “Notes on the South,” which is based on a road trip she made with her husband, John Gregory Dunne—and that took them to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in 1970—she shows that she knows exactly where to look for signs of the elusive present that might lead to the annals of history.
In the South, she comes right out and asks the people she meets where to look and what to look for in her role as roving reporter. Even without their suggestions, which provide valuable information, she knows intuitively where to stand and what to observe. Her eyes seem to go automatically to Laundromats, rifles at the back of pick-up trucks, and plantations with names like “Reality.” She also listens to the radio and hears jokes that aren’t funny, but that prompt everyone but herself to laugh uproariously.
Didion’s surreal South gets under her skin. Indeed, she confesses that she wants to leave before her task is done, though she resists the temptation. She lingers and learns that in the South, sports is “the opiate of the people” and doesn’t bother to remind readers that Karl Marx once said that “religion is the opiate of the people.” She doesn’t have to evoke Marx or quote Marx, though sometimes she seems to be a kind of latter day Marx who writes about race and class and doesn’t sound one bit like an academic Marxist.
Moreover, Didion’s journey on the road is nothing like the Beat road traveled by Jack Kerouac who could also be an astute observer, but who got carried away with words like “wild” and “crazy.” Didion’s anti-romantic prose is spare and yet at the same time seductive.
Young reporters and journalists just finding their way could try to copy her prose or imitate her voice and her diction. It might not be a bad way to learn the craft, though mimicking Didion also seems like a futile task. An inimitable American original, she takes readers to strange and yet familiar places one doesn’t need or want to visit, but rather discover in Didion’s pages.
“Make the story about you,” she might tell wannabe reporters, or alternatively “You are the story.” South and West is a small gem, and while it might be read in a single sitting, it’s also a book that calls out to be reread and savored. If you do not know The White Album, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, or any other work by Didion, this book provides a terrific introduction to an author who has carved out her own territory and made the personal essay into a thing of beauty.