Leave that Freeway Experience Alone

In The White Album, Joan Didion's collection of essays about the 1960s and 1970s, Didion documents the era's growing dislocation and confusion while creating a strong sense of California. Her essay "Bureaucrats" defends the right to perpetual physical dislocation — the right to speed down a freeway alone. The California Department of Transportation's attempt to get drivers off freeways provides a physical and temporal location — Los Angeles County freeways in the 1970s — for the freedom from over-regulation that Didion reveres. The passage below contrasts long, fact-packed sentences narrating the fall-out of the government's decision with short, abstract sentences illustrating the experience bureaucrats seek to snatch from drivers.

What Caltrans described as its ultimate goal on the Santa Monica was to carry the same 260,000 people, "but in 7,800 fewer, or 232,000 vehicles." The figure "232,000" had a visionary precision to it that did not automatically create confidence, especially since the only effect so far had been to disrupt traffic throughout the Los Angeles basin, triple the number of daily accidents on the Santa Monica, prompt the initiation of two lawsuits against Caltrans, and cause large numbers of Los Angeles County residents to behave, most uncharacteristically, as an ignited and conscious proletariat. Citizen guerillas splashed paint and scattered nails in the Diamond Lanes. Diamond Lane maintenance crews expressed fear of hurled objects. Down at 120 South Spring the architects of the Diamond Lane had taken to regarding "the media" as the architects of their embarrassment, and Caltrans statements in the press had been cryptic and contradictory, reminiscent only of old communiqués out of Vietnam.

To understand what was going on it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can "drive" on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lan change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over." [The White Album, 82-83]

This passage, which is the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another, is twelve sentences long. Four sentences are in the first section, which takes up more space than the second one. These first long sentences make the conflict seem epic in nature, as if the most important battles of the 1960s were taking place on the freeways of Los Angeles County. But there are no flowing sentences creating a narrative in the second paragraph. Didion doesn't try to pack five facts into one sentence here. She describes what must be her personal highway experience, but she cuts herself out of the picture and suspends time, so that the reader begins to feel that solo highway driving is a right, not a privilege. In the end, Didion's forceful description of a personal experience, not her meticulous reporting, convince us that Caltrans is wrong.


1. As a journalist, does Didion have a responsibility to give us some facts on how the Diamond Lane — if successfully implemented — could help the environment?

2. Which does the essay accomplish best: detail the character of Los Angeles County, argue that all citizens deserve certain to drive however they want, or prove that Los Angeles administrators are imbeciles?

3. Is it fair to make a personal preference — Didion likes the "mystical" experience of driving on a freeway by herself — the universal explanation for why Los Angeles County drivers don't like the new system? I would guess that convenience is main reason families with more than one car don't carpool, not because they want to trip.

4. Every fact in this essay falls very neatly into Didion's argument, and at the same time builds a narrative, an intact circle. Has Didion given in to "the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images" (11)? Does the linear narrative and argument make the essay less convincing?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

10 September 2007