Didion’s Transition on the Road

In “On the Road,” Didion uses her first book tour as the foundation for commentary on the fast-paced, business-driven culture that engulfs her while traveling. After a week of living in hotels and airplanes, Didion claims that she and her daughter relied on room service and her carefully mapped schedule (176), but by the end of her trip she is overwhelmed and disgusted with the system. The following passage defines the precise moment when Didion starts to feel uncomfortable with the traveling life to which she had previously adjusted. She begins feeling in her “element,” but ends criticizing the culture she found. What is so interesting about the transition is that the reader does not realize that it is occurring until it has. Examining the structural elements of the transition will help the reader to understand how Didion can start by saying, “We wanted to stay on the road forever” (177), and end with the desire of “heading home.” (179)

We saw air as our element. In Houston the air was warm and rich and suggestive of fossil fuel and we pretended we owned a house in River Oaks. In Chicago the air was brilliant and thin and we pretended we owned the 27th floor of the Ritz. In New York the air was charged and crackling and shorting out with opinions, and we pretended we had some. Opinions were demanded in return. The absence of opinion was construed as opinion. Even my daughter was developing opinions. “Had an interesting talk with Carl Bernstein,” she noted in the log she had been assigned to keep for her fifth-grade teacher in Malibu, California. Many of these New York opinions seemed intended as tonic revisions, bold corrections to opinions in vogue during the previous week, but since I had just dropped from the sky it was difficult for me to distinguish those opinions which were “bold” and “revisionist” from those which were merely “weary” and “rote.” At the time I left New York many people were expressing a bold belief in “joy” — joy in children, joy in wedlock, joy in the dailiness of life — but joy was trickling down fast to show-business personalities. Mike Nichols, for example, was expressing his joy in the pages of Newsweek, and also his weariness with “lapidary bleakness.” Lapidary bleakness was definitely rote. [177, Sojourns, “On the Road”]

Didion does not approve of the demand for opinion she finds in New York, but is unable to escape it. She begins to see the flaws of a progress-driven culture in a person’s necessity to make “corrections to opinions” (177) or a photographer’s desensitized view that a suicide jumper is a means to “make the paper” (178). As Didion becomes disillusioned, the reader does, too. By moving progressively through her journey and thoughts, Didion guides the reader to the same conclusion she reached on the road.


1. Throughout the “On the Road,” Didion questions, “Where were we heading,” (175) sometimes referring to herself and her daughter, but often implying a broader “we,” applying it to America as a country. When Didion uses “we” again in the above passage, does she include the reader as well? Do “we” as a country see “air as our element” or “pretend” to have opinion?

2. Didion is so adept at making what should be abrupt subject changes seem natural. The reader follows her stream-of-consciousness transition from air to opinions without questioning the connection between the two. Is there a relationship between pretending to own “a house in River Oaks” or “the 27th floor of the Ritz” and pretending to have an opinion?

3. A detail such as, “Even my daughter was developing opinions. ‘Had an interesting talk with Carl Bernstein,’ she noted in the log she had been assigned to keep for her fifth-grade teacher in Malibu, California,” seem extraneous on the first read, especially since it does not appear to relate to the surrounding sentences. What is the purpose in including such a descriptive anecdote?

4. After Didion uses the phrase “dropped from the sky” she also starts using words in quotation marks, making her status as an outsider more prominent. Does her tone change here as well? Is the reader to interpret the last phrase, “Lapidary bleakness was definitely rote,” as a serious or sarcastic assertion?

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31 January 2011