What is Joan Didion saying?

Fritz Brantley '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

What is Joan Didion saying? In numerous passages, on numerous topics, Didion eludes creating a strongly worded thesis by retreating into ellipsis. The first notable example sits squarely on the first page:

We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Or at least we do for a while. [Didion, White Album, 11]

It is an almost double ellipsis, when one takes in her argument. The text of experience is first created by reading, then later, chaotic and elusive. In other passages, there are fewer rhetorical complications but just as many denials:

Music people never wanted ordinary drinks. They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat. Spending time with music people was confusing, and required a more fluid and ultimately more passive approach than I ever acquired. In the first place time was never of the essence: we would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty, or we could order in later. We would go down to USC to see the Living Theater if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette or an arrangement to meet Ultra Violet at the Montecito. In any case David Hockney was coming by. In any case Ultra Violet was not at the Montecito. In any case we would go down to USC and see the Living Theater tonight or we would see the Living Theater another night, in New York, or Prague. First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more. [Didion, White Album, 26]

In the passages above and below, what is most visible is a manic love of detail. It is also worth noting her obsession with time -- it's a prominent stylistic feature in all parts of the text, accompanied with her scrupulous detailing of dates. It could be a tic of style, held over from news writing, but in a particularly climactic line:

I would call Los Angeles and ask my husband. In other words I had skirts, jerseys, leotards, pullover sweater, shoes, stockings, bra, night-gown, robe, slippers, cigarettes, bourbon, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil, mohair throw, typewriter, legal pads, pens, files, and a house key, but I didn't know what time it was. This may be a prable, either of my life as a reporter during this period, or of the period itself. [Didion, White Album, 36]

What is the end of Didion's many textual retreats?

does it do to our ability to read the text? And of time, does Didion's almost obsessive detailing of minutiae reflect an attempt to impose upon a text, and a life story, an order she admits she cannot find?

Does her excessive detail in any way conflict with her quickness to elide her own statements? What does the tension between these two choices create?

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.


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Last modified 1 February 2005