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Goodbye to all that

Where I Was From Joan Didion Alfred A. Knopf: 232 pp., $23

September 28, 2003|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is a Times staff writer.

Twelve miles east of Fresno, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, is a road-widening project that signifies loss. Where two lanes once ran north and south, a four-lane artery will soon ease congestion between new housing tracts outside of Clovis. Dust rises from graders near a shopping center, and a Starbucks franchise opened there last month, the modern, mall-like design a surprising contrast to the fruit stands, farmhouses and open fields that one expects to see in the Central Valley. Some passersby may wonder what the Starbucks replaced (a deserted packinghouse), and others may not think twice. For some, it is their bent to wonder, and for others, it is never knowing anything else.

The idea of loss has preoccupied Joan Didion throughout her life, no more so than in her writings about California. Forty years ago she wrote, "It is hard to find California," and it seems to have gotten no easier. In "The Great Exception," Carey McWilliams once described the difficult task of understanding the Golden State; writing about California, he argued, is like "trying to chart a course in a storm: the instruments will not work; the landmarks are lost; and the maps make little sense." Didion incarnates McWilliams' navigator.

Valediction and elegy alike, "Where I Was From" is a storm-tossed book. Its history is dense, its associations nonlinear, its prose sharp, direct and chiseled, and its focus -- "historical nihilism," as she wrote in a publicity sheet -- maddeningly yet intriguingly elusive. The book is, Didion 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."

A native in exile, Didion was born in the Sacramento Valley in 1934. She moved to New York in 1956, returned to California in 1964 and moved back to New York in 1988. Throughout her life -- notably in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," "The White Album" and "After Henry," and in her fiction, most famously "Play It as It Lays" -- she has proved that, although there is no going home, there is certainly no escaping it, and her work is unavoidable: "to find," as she writes, "the 'point' of California, to locate some message in its history."

By punching holes in popular mythologies, by disabusing us of any solipsistic spin of history, Didion argues that there is "slippage between the way Californians perceived themselves and the way they actually were." It's as true now as it was back then. The only difference between a deserted packinghouse and a Starbucks franchise is what you can remember, and remembering is never easy in the land of dreams.

Amnesia is, Didion suggests, in the DNA of the place. No wonder she begins her story on the California trail, holding up her own family tree as an example. "These women," she writes of her forebears, "would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew."

Breaking clean -- as well as enduring hunger, inclement weather and natives -- she argues, brought about a necessary toughening. "Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time," she writes, yet in hindsight sentiment flowered as if compensating for the ruthlessness that preceded it. When Henry Huntington commissioned Albert Bierstadt a century ago to paint Donner Lake from the summit, we saw a golden glow and nothing of the emigrants' travail. When Thomas Kinkade included a Miwok Indian village in a kitschy Yosemite Valley scene a decade ago, we saw a golden glow and nothing of the tribe's travail. "In California," she reminds us, "we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it."

Some writers see Californians as brilliant dreamers; others see failures, seeking a second start. Didion steps over both arguments and portrays the settlers of the state as shrewd entrepreneurs who would stop at nothing to turn dirt into dollars. But rather than rely on their wits or work, the most successful leveraged subsidies from the federal government, first through the railroads, then water projects, then oil operations and finally through military contracts made possible by World War II and the Cold War. It is a great irony, in Didion's telling, that a state which so prides itself on individualism and autonomy ("where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic") remains unaware of the real sources of its prosperity. Such ignorance comes with a price.

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