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Where I Was From


Where I Was From

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