Didion: Resisting the Story She Tells

Charles Vallely, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In "In the Islands," a short-story unfolds before Joan Didion's eyes -- a brief scene that has the trappings and desired resonation of "narrative convention" (145). This aggravates Didion notably, "because [she] wanted to see life expanded to a novel" (145), and not "reduced to a short story" (145). She wants her narrative to unfold in the medium of her choice, to reflect her life and its tone in its very structure. And yet, in putting this short-story to the page, Didion becomes the author of the story: she reveals a "little epiphany" (145) and "glimpses a crisis in a stranger's life" (145). But in this retelling, she places her own identity in the scene and, indeed, permits the reader to glimpse the crisis of a stranger other than the man who is being driven to murder. The reader glimpses Didion's own crisis with the story of her life.

1975: The 8:45 A.M. Pan American to Honolulu this morning was delayed half an hour before takeoff from Los Angeles. During this delay the stewardesses served orange juice and coffee and two children played tag in the aisles and, somewhere behind me, a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife. I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: "You are driving me to murder." After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. There were many Pan American employees rushing on and off then, and considerable confusion. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before takeoff or whether the woman came on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. I thought about it while I was drinking a sherry-on-the-rocks and I thought about it during lunch and I was still thinking about it when the first of the Hawaiian Islands appeared off the left wing tip. It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about this incident: I disliked it because it had the aspects of a short story, one of those "little epiphany" stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger's life -- a woman weeping in a tearoom, often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, "tearooms" and "trains" still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life -- and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who may or may not be driving one another to murder but in any case are not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 A.M. Pan American to Honolulu. [pp. 144-5, Sojourns, "In The Islands"]


1. Why does this incident bother Didion, but the story that immediately precedes it (pp. 142-44) does not? When the "bugler played taps" (p. 143), then "whistl[ed] "Rain Drops Keep Fallin' on My Head"" (p. 144), and when "the father and mother came back and looked for a long while at the covered grave" (144), are there not epiphanic moments, and a concise short-story format?

2. Throughout The White Album -- both the essay and the collection -- Didion often returns to the metaphor that she has "mislaid" (p. 12) the script, that she can no longer construct a linear narrative out of the "shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience" (p. 11). In this scene, in which the narrative is so lucid and ordered, how come she finds it so upsetting? How important is authorial control to her?

3. Is Didion, in spite of herself, "moved to see . . . her own life in a new light?" (p. 145)?

Cited Works

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

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

Last modified 6 February 2005