Joan Didion: Manipulating Desire and What it Means to Have a Real Life

In "On the Mall," Joan Didion sits atop a perch at the country's top fashion magazine and looks wistfully downward on retail further down the economic ladder. She professes a love for shopping centers and implies a believe that, even with their emphasis on conformity, they are more authentic than the products and lifestyles she uneagerly promotes at Vogue. However, she presents these beliefs and interests to the reader as a character flaw of hers. As readers, we are drawn into her obsession as she shares it with us, both timidly and with conviction.

I first heard of James B. Douglas and David D. Bohannon not when I was 12 but a dozen years later, when I was living in New York, working for Vogue, and taking, by correspondence, a University of California Extension course in shopping-center theory. This did not seen to me eccentric at the time. I remember sitting on the cool floor in Irving Penn's studio and reading, in The Community Builder's Handbook, advice from James B. Douglas on shopping center financing. I recall staying in my pale-blue office on the twentieth floor of the Graybar building to memorize David D. Bohannon's parking ratios. My "real" life was to sit in this office and describe life as it was lived in Djakarta and Caneel Bay and in the chateaux of the Loire Valley, but my dream life was to put together a Class-A regional shopping center with three full-line department stores as major tenants.

That I was perhaps the only person I knew in New York, let alone of the Conde Nast floors of the Graybar Building, to have memorized the distictions among "A," "B," and "C" shopping centers did not occur to me (the defining distinction, as long as I have your attention, is that an "A," or "regional," center has as its major tenant a full-line department store which carries major appliances; a "B," or "community," center has as its major tenant a junior department store which does not carry major appliances; and a "C," or "neighborhood," center has as its center only a supermarket): my interest in shopping centers was in no way casual. I did want to build them. I wanted to build then because I had fallen into the habit of writing fiction, and I had it in my head that a couple of good centers might support this habit less taxingly that a pale-blue office at Vogue. [pp. 181-82, Sojourns, "On the Mall."'


1. What American cultural traditions and themes does Didion manipulate to create poignancy in this essay? Is a longing to build perfection rather than seek individuality as ingrained in our society as she makes it out to be?

2. Why is "real" in "real life" in quotation marks? What is Didion saying about Vogue, work, New York City, or life in general?

3. How does Didion use her own flaws to create truth? Would this piece be less beautiful or truthful if her love for shopping centers were told through her confidence that she could, in fact, build one, rather than a notion that she is confused for taking such a profound interest in them?

4. Is it at all condescending or innapropriate for a person whose job it is to describe urban society and exclusivity to express such a profound interest in something as common and suburban as a shopping center? Is there any irony at all to this essay?

Cited Works

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

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

10 September 2007