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Didion returns to her favorite topic

Looking again at her native California, she examines its myths.

September 19, 2003|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — There is a certain awkwardness in meeting Joan Didion for the first time. Part of it is owed to simple awe: Didion has influenced, powerfully, an entire generation of writers who would interpret California.

Part of it, too, comes from a sense of knowing almost too much about this tiny woman in charcoal slacks and simple brown sweater who appears at the door of her Upper East Side apartment. Didion has served up so much of herself in print -- the psychiatric evaluations, the migraines, the startling personal bulletins:

"I am a 34-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come."

That was from "The White Album," the 1979 collection of essays that vaulted Didion to the top of the heap of California writers. As it turns out, Didion's California output would drop off considerably after that. Instead, she would turn her talents toward other topics -- Miami, Central America, national politics.

"I became more interested," she explained, seated now in the apartment's front room, "in the arrangement of the world, in politics as it were, which I had not been before."

At the same time, she could not let California go, and for the past quarter-century, much of it spent here in New York, she worked and reworked her ideas about the native land she thought she knew so well. The result of all this brooding is a provocative memoir entitled "Where I Was From" (Knopf), to be released at the end of the month.

The "was" in the title points toward where Didion has traveled with this exercise, putting into the past tense notions about California that had been passed down to her across generations. "Where I Was From" represents, as Didion herself writes, "an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely."

The book weaves together Didion's reflections on her family history, a survey of pertinent California literature and some ground-level reportage to produce a layered inventory of items that, as she puts it, do not "add up" in California.

Such as:

An aversion to Big Government -- in a state that, from the start, has relied heavily on huge chunks of federal money, money to build the Southern Pacific and other railroads, money to irrigate its valleys, money to propel the Southern California aerospace industry....

An enduring affection for a romanticized agrarian past, untroubled by the historic dominance of corporate agriculture and a well-proven willingness among the state's "yeoman farmers" to subdivide and sell, when the money's right....

And a chronic conviction, held without any sense of irony, that all was paradise, until the latest wave of newcomers washed in. Indeed, Didion's most fundamental revision involves the idea that California, particularly her California of the Sacramento Valley, "changed" with the booms that followed World War II.

"One of the big stories of my childhood was how much California had changed, and to come to the realization that it hadn't changed at all, that it was the same" was one of many surprises she encountered on her journey. "Yes, it changed in superficial ways, but the basic attitudes didn't change a whole lot."

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Challenging her past

The book represents a return by Didion, not only to the topic of California, but also to the personal touches that "embroidered," to use one of her favorite words, her earlier writing.

Reassembling her thoughts about California, however, required her to delve back into her own life, to reexamine family lore and hand-me-down mythologies that she had left unchallenged through much of her life.

She writes movingly of the eccentricities, and passing, of her parents -- the father who, under treatment for "tension," would take long walks across the Golden Gate Bridge, a perilous exercise for the seriously depressed; the mother who eschewed dusting or making beds, because the dust would return and the beds would be slept in again.

The writing of "Where I Was From" began in earnest in the spring of 2001, not long before the death of her mother, but the intellectual sifting began years earlier: "Actually, I started writing some of this stuff down about my family in the '70s, but I could never go anywhere with it. I hadn't thought any of it through. I still was not looking very analytically at the story."

Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, moved to New York 15 years ago, in part, she said, to be closer to their daughter who was attending Barnard. She discounted, however, the suggestion that leaving California perhaps helped her to see it with greater clarity.

"I think," she said, "I was just getting older and thinking about it more."

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