Joan Didion's narrative style as a "cutting room experience"

Kevin Zimmer, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Didion refers to her style of writing and narration as a "cutting room experience", a different, non-linear means to perceive a experience as "more electrical than ethical" (13). She intends to separate the meaning of a given scene from the image that is presented in the search for a pure aesthetic devoid of narrative commentary and personal slant. Didion seemingly succeeds in this mission by quickly cutting from scene to scene, painting very brief pictures of individuals and scenes, and choosing to launch into detailed description of often overlooked, minute details. But towards the end of the essay, "The White Album", she seems to lose sight of her stylistic goals:

I have known, since then, very little about the movements of the people who seemed to me emblematic of those years. I know of course that Eldridge Cleaver went to Algeria and came home an entrepreneur. I know that Jim Morrison died in Paris. I know that Linda Kassabian fled in search of the pastoral in New Hampshire, where I once visited her; she also visited me in New York, and we took our children on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. I also know that in 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Norarr, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and annonced plans to "continue my writing." Writing had helped him, he said, to "reflect on experience and see what it means." Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on "midnight Confessions" and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents of the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means. (48)

How does Didion utilize her own writing as more than just a mere tool to explore surface impressions and encounters of individuals and incidents by using writing as a vehicle to disocover meaning and contentment in her own personal life? How successfully does Didion blend personal/introspective and eyewitness perspectives? Is it really possible to convey an experience in a highly visual, visceral, "electrical" manner through words? Or does narrative bias, ethical commentary, or personal slant always come through in some way in Didion's writing?


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Last modified 6 February 2002