The Act of Belonging in Didion's Dislocated Era

Joan Didion's The White Album, a collection of essays ranging in style from the deeply personal to the journalistic, with tones both passionate and bitter, examines the theme of dislocation — posited as a symptom of 1960's American life. Experienced as both a physical distance from home and a mental trauma, dislocation is present in all of the disparate images of Didion's mosaic world — a world and an era defined not with simple summaries, but in vibrant images and truly lived memories. Hollywood producers and rock stars, Bishop James Pike, Georgia O'Keefe, even extravagant and wasteful architecture — all represent the confusion of living during a time of great change, the struggle to define oneself against a morphing image of American life. Yet amidst these stories of displacement, including examples of her own vulnerability and depression, Didion includes a paragraph of triumphant belonging after traveling around the country on a book tour in the essay "On the Road." Didion suggests that a product of 1960's American life is may be that the country begins to feel smaller, condensed and attainable: that individuals (especially men) can claim their land as their own. The following passage is imbued with the ambition of the time, a redefining of American nationalism and belonging, and a sense of Didion's understanding of the outcome of travel.

I began to see America as my own, a child's map over which my child and I could skim and light at will. We spoke not of cities but of airports. If rain fell at Logan we could find sun at Dulles. Bags lost at O'Hare could be found at Dallas/Fort Worth. In the first-class cabins of the planes on which we traveled we were often, my child and I, the only female passengers, and I apprehended for the first time those particular illusions of mobility which power American business. Time was money. Motion was progress. Decisions were snap and the ministrations of other people were constant. Room service, for example, assumed paramount importance. We needed, my eleven-year-old and I, instant but erratically timed infusions of consommÄ, oatmeal, crab salad, and asparagus vinaigrette. We needed Perrier water and tea to drink when we were working. We needed bourbon on the rocks and Shirley Temples to drink when we were not. A kind of irritable panic came over us when room service went off, and also when no one answered in the housekeeping department. In short we had fallen into the peculiar hormonal momentum of business travel, and I had begun to understand the habituation many men and a few women have to planes and telephones and schedules. [176]

Discussion Questions

1. Didion refers repeatedly to her daughter in the passage above, seeming to appreciate the comfort of being able to refer to herself as part of "We" instead of the isolating "I." What does the addition of the eleven-year-old add to the story and the message of the paragraph? Does it make Didion's sentiments seem more childish and innocent, or more universal?

2. What is the significance of the food and drinks Didion describes? Do they represent a random assortment or do they mean something more — perhaps representative of elitism, or cultural diversity?

3. The end of the passage, "I had begun to understand the habituation many men and a few women have to planes and telephones and schedules," hints at a scorn for lives so meticulously scheduled and constricted. In what ways does Didion subtly show her opinion, or do you think she tells us this simply to illustrate an understanding of a lifestyle previously foreign?

4. "We spoke not of cities but of airports." What does Didion mean by this? What is the significance of an entire city being represented by its airport?

5. Does Didion's ability to claim America as somewhere she belongs after her book tour represent a simplification of the world? Does she in fact think that there is something to be gained from feeling dislocated and lost sometimes instead of the attitude she experienced after the book tour?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

11 September 2007