The Line Between Engaging and Reporting in Joan Didion's The White Album

J.D. Nasaw '08, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

The first part of Joan Didion's The White Album begins with a very personal note on the nature of stories. As the author states that she will explore a time when she "began to doubt the premises of all the stories I ever told myself," the reader prepares for a painstaking confession of personal anecdotes and how they drove her to this state of turmoil. Instead she gives us a surprising mélange that seems at times brilliant, and at others, downright pointless. She effectively uses quotations, short and long, as almost primary sources in order to put the reader next to her as she experiences these events. She reveals one of her many grocery lists and then goes on to analyze it:

It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative.

One the most exciting passages in the story is a sample of a psychiatric report on the author herself:

The content of patient's responses is highly unconventional and frequently bizarre, filled with sexual and anatomical preoccupations, and basic reality contact is obviously and seriously impaired at times… It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed a failure… In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure…

After some digestion, the report appears to be a refreshing addition to Didion's literary palette. However, it also leaves the reader wondering what to make of it when juxtaposed with the author's personal ramblings and sections on rock bands and civil rights leaders in which she seems almost entirely absent. In displaying the report, is Didion attempting to add an objective side to an otherwise subjective narrative? How does the description of near-insanity in the report affect the reader's interpretation of Didion's own clear and seemingly sane writing?

This book must be read in sections and the separate messages become clear only when viewed individually. After a disturbing and engaging composition like "The White Album," I found myself craving more excursions into the author's mind, and stories like "James Pike, American" and "Holy Water" seemed entirely pointless and unappealing. In these less outwardly personal accounts, the reporter in Didion triumphs and she seems to inadvertently create a triangle of alienation between author, reader, and text. The use of quotations in these stories is distancing rather than inviting and seems employed to mask the author's own feelings on the topic of discussion. Is this brand of non-fiction inherently distancing, or is it simply Didion's style that forces us to read between the text to find her more deep-seeded opinions? Is it opinions we crave, or simply a good story?

Cited Works

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


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Last modified 1 February 2005