Didion's Electrical Narrative

Will Goodman, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In the late 1960s, the era of The Doors and the Black Panthers, Zen philosophy and Charles Manson, Joan Didion lived in a whirlwind of absurdity. The confused coexistence of violent revolution and free love was never lost on Didion, who added her MS diagnosis to the list of senseless, impenetrable events of her life in the '60s. In "The White Album," Didion explains the era as a breakdown of narrative cohesion, when all she could do was try to make sense of the pieces:

I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear clues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative's intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical. [pp. 12-13]

Questions for Discussion

1. How does Didion mirror her "cutting-room experience" with her language and syntax?

2. How do we read the story differently, if at all, in light of the Didion's admitted problems with narrative "meaning"?

3. What does the title, "The White Album," have to do with Didion's electrical experience?

4. Didion tells us that her experience lacks an ethical sense, but do we as readers take away a moral from her story?

Cited Works

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


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Last modified 6 February 2005