Review

Where I Was From

by Joan Didion



The WHERE in the title of Joan Didion's seventh book of nonfiction,
WHERE I WAS FROM, is California. A sixth-generation Californian who
now lives in New York, Didion has written about the Golden State,
its people, politics, industry and culture throughout her
four-decade career, in novels like RUN RIVER (which she discusses
at length in this book) and PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, as well as in
essays like "The White Album" and "Some Dreamers of the Golden
Dream."

But WHERE I WAS FROM is her first book devoted entirely to
California, and it reads like a culmination of her writing career.
She is "trying to find the 'point' of California, to locate some
message in its history." She begins with the state's settlement
during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when
homesteaders, lured by the concrete promise of gold and the vaguer
idea of an earthly "golden" paradise, made the perilous crossing
over the western frontier. Today, some two hundred years later,
this is the version of its history that California promotes:
citizens of hardy stock braving the dangerous wilderness to found a
new, freer society with abundant land and opportunity. This
mythology, which Didion admits buying into when she was much
younger, is an illusion, a self-congratulating story the state
tells itself.

WHERE I WAS FROM examines this statewide self-deception over two
centuries as it presents itself in art, politics, economics and
family stories. Didion is particularly adept at locating the
economic forces behind cultural phenomena. For example, she argues
that the emergence of the Lakewood Spur Posse --- a suburban gang
whose members, during the late eighties and early nineties, coerced
and intimidated young girls into sex --- was inseparable from the
floundering local industry and the rounds of layoffs that left many
parents at worst jobless and at best scared and distracted.
Moreover, the Spur Posse is specific to a particular time and
place, of the playing out of an ersatz middle class created by
government contractors like McDonnell Douglas and located in a
manufactured community that offered the perception of white-collar
luxuries like homeownership to blue-collar workers. This makeshift
economic class --- the have-nots made to believe they were haves
--- is for Didion representative of "a familiar California error,
that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest
bidder."

In other words, Didion's is not a California of golden dreams, but
one of diminishing returns for each generation, a place that
constantly tricks its citizens with a tempting history full of
false lessons.

The I in the title is, of course, Didion. Throughout her career,
her main subject has always been herself: her identity, her place
in the world, and how both change according to the mores and ideals
of the place and time. Even when she writes about other people ---
Washington politicians in POLITICAL FICTIONS, for instance, or
runaway children in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" --- that pronoun
dots her prose as if unshakable. She is always in her skin, always
looking out of her own eyes, always trapped in her own prose.

So, even though there are few passages in WHERE I WAS FROM about
Didion herself, she continually makes her presence subtly felt.
Like an angled mirror, California reflects the writer to her
readers: she creates a self-portrait through her rigorous, mannered
arguments and her sober prose style, both of which reveal a
clear-headedness that seems to spurn easy answers and cold
comforts.

Those passages that do discuss her family and its California legacy
anchor the book in the personal, making it more than simply a
cultural history. Rather, these sections --- especially those near
the end, which describe her father's depression and her mother's
death --- reveal how much Didion and her family have invested in
California and its comforting myths, which lends her defiance a
compelling gravity.

The WAS and the FROM are also telling. The past tense haunts WHERE
I WAS FROM like a grammatical ghost; the rattling of its chains
suggests something dead or gone. The word she uses to describe this
feeling is "remote" --- not merely the geographical remoteness of
living 3,000 miles away in New York, but an uncrossable emotional
distance from her state and its myth, her family and its
beliefs.

Ultimately, having seen the reality behind the myth, Didion no
longer considers herself from California, no longer
subscribes to its lessons and codes. If the California she once
believed in is a lie, if every previous generation of her family
has died, then the loss is, unlike the acres sold or the layoff
statistics or the numbers of deaths, incalculable. Although she has
written a brilliant, haunting meditation on her state and her
family, Didion knows and makes directly clear that "there is no
real way to deal with everything we lose."

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 24, 2011

Where I Was From
by Joan Didion

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2004
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679752862
  • ISBN-13: 9780679752868