California as both state and state of mind has been a central motif in much of Joan Didion's writing during the past 40 years. Her novels have been wholly or partially set there, and in her journalism she has returned time and again to the place of her childhood. "It is very easy to sit at the bar in, say, La Scala in Beverly Hills, or Ernie's in San Francisco, and to share in the pervasive delusion that California is only five hours from New York by air," she wrote long ago in an essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. "The truth is . . . California is somewhere else."Didion has a rarified California pedigree. In a state where it is routinely asserted that no one is actually from there, Didion truly is. Part of her family arrived before the Gold Rush, which in California terms is akin to an Englishman claiming pre-Norman ancestry, and she grew up in the Sacramento Valley surrounded by a sense of "old family" entitlement. That childhood inspired her first novel Run River, and it fuels her latest work, Where I Was From, which mixes memoir, history and social commentary into a compelling rumination on what California has meant in her life and in her work.
"A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up," Didion writes. By this she means the mythology she was spoon-fed as a girl, the idea that those who had carved a life out of the wilderness were in some way superior to those who came later, and that they had earned and passed to their descendants the singular right to live the "California dream." From her vantage point 60-plus years on, Didion sees glaring contradictions in much of the romantic twaddle she was told back then. Her ancestors were no different from those who came later. Then, as now, California was often about land grabs and money, and the legacy of that opportunism is murky at best. California was the end of the line for 19th century notions of Manifest Destiny, and one of Didion's central images is the Southern Pacific railroad, which brought many to the state, but wealth to just a few. In the central part of the book, Didion moves to the near-present. She examines the city of Lakewood, built on an idealized model of the community of the future, to house postwar aerospace workers. Some 30 or 40 years later, with defense department budgets slashed, the residents of Lakewood scrambled to make a living. Yet, even with this new reality staring them in the face, many still bought into the middle class self-image that had been part of the package. What all this means for Joan Didion the woman and the writer is really the point of Where I Was From. The book is somewhat inconclusive, as I suppose a book about contradiction must be. In the parts of the book that are memoir, though, Didion writes brilliantly about her family, with the same dispassionate sense of irony with which she has always drawn her fictional characters. She recalls, for example, the way a simple household artifact like a potato masher has been handed down and revered like the holy grail just because it made the arduous trip west with some forebear. As is her wont, she never comments on the banality of this symbol. We get the point.
Joan Didion is a spare and careful writer who during a long career has published a mere 12 books, each of them a polished gem. Where I Was From may have a somewhat narrower appeal than, say, The White Album or Political Fictions. Her fans will easily find much to savor, however, while Californians old and new will gain a new perspective on their regional ethos. For the rest, perhaps it is enough to appreciate Didion's brilliance as a stylist and her unapologetic, unsentimental way of looking at things. We are a nation of movers, always reinventing ourselves, and even the non-Californians among us can appreciate what Didion seems to imply: that we are not only the product of where we are from, but of what we are running away from, too. Robert Weibezahl is not from California, but he lives there now.