Joan Didion's White Album: historical fiction or journalism?

George Marinopoulos, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Throughout the book I found that certain parts were closer to historical fiction than actual journalism. This would automatically make the book a novel and undermine its power as a work of non-fiction. I found the following passage one such example of the confused identity of the book:

"I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On august 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister in law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski's house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised." (page 42)

The frequent use of "I recall" in the passage reinforces the idea that the book is non-fiction while statements like "the moon was always full" has the exact opposite effect since it is frankly untrue and denotes nostalgia for the past. Why would the author chose to create such conflict over the authenticity of the historical information given in the book? Could it simply be that the author was not sure if she was writing a novel (or historical fiction) or a non-fiction book? At the same time the author seems to constantly remind the reader that most information is unreliable by using passages like this that show the confusion over the facts of an event in the past. Is this done on purpose in order to warn the reader that most times the supposed facts are unreliable and a product of rumor and personal perspective? If so why does she go to the trouble to give her on spin on things that she has lived through?


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Last modified 6 February 2002