A stranger at home


In The White Album, Joan Didion is preoccupied by the concept of the stranger, a haunting figure that defines both the people around her and her own person. She constantly encounters strangers at her home, not only in sporadic instances but even in the form of invited guests at an Easter lunch, a gathering that would normally be characterized as familial. As the physical world around her becomes less familiar and more absurd, she retreats, out of reach, into her mind. Amongst these strangers, she finds herself a stranger as others come in and out of her life with no meaningful interaction.

Some strangers at the door knocked, and invented a reason to come inside: a call, for example, to the Triple A, about a car not in evidence. Others just opened the door and walked in, and I would come across them in the entrance hall. I recall asking one such stranger what he wanted. We looked at each other for what seemed a long time, and then he saw my husband on the stair landing. “Chicken Delight,” he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, nor was he carrying any. I took the license number of his panel truck. It seems to me now that during those years I was always writing down the license numbers of panel trucks, panel trucks circling the block, panel trucks idling at the intersection. I put these license numbers in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came.

That the time would come I never doubted, at least not in the inaccessible places of the mind where I seemed more and more to be living. So many encounters in those years were devoid of any logic save that of the dreamwork. In the big house on Franklin Avenue many people seemed to come and go without relation to what I did. I knew where the sheets and towels were kept but I did not always know who was sleeping in every bed. I had the keys but not the key. I remember taking a 25-mg. Compazine one Easter Sunday and making a large and elaborate lunch for a number of people, many of whom were still around on Monday. I remember walking around barefoot all day on the worn hardwood floors of that house and I remember “Do You Wanna Dance” and “Visions of Johanna” and a song called “Midnight Confessions.” I remember a babysitter telling me that she saw death in my aura. I remember chatting with her about reasons why this might be so, paying her, opening all the French windows and going to sleep in the living room. "

Joan Didion reveals the passive paranoia that characterized this period. Despite the horrific nature of the killings that inspired the paranoia, the response is conspicuously casual. Didion’s inactivity extends beyond her status as a by-stander to the serial killings, and she assumes the role of a spectator in her own life.

Questions

1. What is the key that Didion claims not to have? How does this passage relate to other moments in the book that convey the same lack of control?

2. Given the title of the work (The White Album) and the references to specific songs in this and other passages, what is the significance of music to Didion and to the randomness associated with this period in her life?

3. What does Didion accomplish with the use of the “I remember” structure in the end of the passage? Does this challenge her reliability as a narrator?

4. According to the line “So many encounters in those years were devoid of any logic save that of the dreamwork,” where does Didion find logic in her life? Is it that the illogical circumstances could only be explained as would dreams, where the rules of logic do not apply? Or is it that Didion’s mind is the only space that makes sense?

Cited Works

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


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

1 February 2011