What does a snake know, or intend?

David Thomson

  • Where I Was From by Joan Didion
    Flamingo, 240 pp, £14.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 00 717886 7

This is not a long book, except in its view, which is like the view from a Sierra peak, where the omniscient author can see all the way from the Nevada desert, violet and dun, to the biblical meadows, the pretty colours and the plenty that will be California. The art direction of that great trek westwards was perfect – art direction usually is. And now here comes Joan Didion, a little bit like the doomsayer on the wagon train (Walter Brennan, with teeth), but too arresting to be ignored, to tell us the prospectus, like the prospect, was a hoax.

None of Joan Didion’s books has been long, exactly, not with the generous amounts of white space she provides, which serve as fresh linen and air conditioning after a day’s driving in the desert, some respite from the perils. But air conditioning, being a human enterprise, can go on the blink. Then the motel room becomes a furnace, and sooner or later someone will open the door to let in some cool night air. Whereupon, the rattlesnake can come sliding in, no noisier than a pen on paper.

‘What does the rattlesnake want?’ Didion might wonder; then give this hard-boiled retort: ‘I don’t ask.’ But the question never goes away. And by now it’s clearer, I think, that her book is in fact long, because it represents forty years of writing about the same subject more or less: can lovely sentences keep the horror at bay, or are you going to need to scream? After forty years, the writing is as good as ever, and the distraught young woman of the 1960s is older, but still here. So we can have the lovely sentences, but we have to take the bitter medicine, too. It’s like eating chocolate parfait and bacon (the first thing Treat Morrison notices about Elena McMahon in The Last Thing He Wanted).

Let me qualify ‘lovely’. It’s too close to something Didion might have picked up shopping (and she is crazy about clothes – you rarely know what her people look like, but she tells you all about the colours and the fabrics of their clothes, and the shops they came from), and it may be unduly suggestive of the strictly feminine. Instead, let me quote Didion, from 1978, on someone’s ‘perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.’ Not that she was referring to her own writing. You’ll have to guess who it was for the moment; it was an author she aspired to, one she had learned from, and one whose problems she does not always escape.

Do you think you know what a ‘sinkhole’ is? I ask because I wasn’t sure I did. So I looked it up and a sinkhole is ‘a hole formed in soluble rock by the action of water, serving to conduct surface water to an underground passage’. In other words, you might be swimming in the Sacramento River – water so sediment-thick you can’t see your hands – when you feel a tug at your feet and your thighs, a downwards drag. That’s one of the local dangers, just as in the Sierra in winter there can be small cavities beneath several feet of snow – a child can be running along in the fun and the chatter and go straight down a hole and be lost for ever. How long does the child stay alive in the white hole, waiting, wondering and helpless? Don’t ask.

Joan Didion is from Sacramento, no matter that she lives now on the Upper East Side, and may be best known for her nearly lyrical guidance on how a young woman in a Corvette might negotiate the Los Angeles freeway system. Sacramento is fundamental to Didion, to such an extent that this book’s emotional current is the death of the author’s mother in 2001, at the age of 90, after living most of her life in Sacramento’s unkind heat.

A lot of people go regularly to California, but would not think of visiting Sacramento. It is out of the way; it has no seashore. It is a place formed by rivers, their flooding and the calculated engineering that has used the water to make the vast San Joaquin Valley an open farm. About all you can say for Sacramento is that it is the site of the state government. It is very flat country, but you can see the beginning of the hills that rise up as the Sierra, the last great test for the pioneering people who came west in wagons.

In summer (when the state government goes away) there may be sixty days in a row when the temperature is over 100 degrees, and pushing 110. There is a lot of air conditioning in Sacramento now, but not in Didion’s childhood, and not when her family settled in the area. In the opening of Where I Was From, this very hip 68-year-old describes her family’s roots as far back as 1766, on the Virginia and Carolina frontier, and she is not just proud of those antecedents and of the shy, lonely harshness it seems to have left in her mother. She bears allegiance and believes in the pioneering code – always has done.

In 1965, she wrote an essay called ‘On Morality’ (magazine writing has turned a little more flippant since then), which tells of staying in a Death Valley motel, and hearing the story of a crash in which a young drunk was killed. The woman in the other car was badly hurt and had to be driven to the hospital (a hundred miles away). But her husband stayed on the road with the drunk’s corpse – against the coyotes. ‘You can’t just leave a body on the highway,’ someone says. ‘It’s immoral.’

And Didion picks up the point (or was it, even in 1965, more of a hope?):

I am talking, of course, about the kind of social code that is sometimes called, usually pejoratively, ‘wagon-train morality’. In fact that is precisely what it is. For better or worse, we are what we learned as children: my own childhood was illuminated by graphic litanies of the grief awaiting those who failed in their loyalties to each other. The Donner-Reed Party, starving in the Sierra snows, all the ephemera of civilisation gone save that one vestigial taboo, the provision that no one should eat his own blood kin.

Or anyone else’s?

These days, the Donner Pass is a recommended scenic pause on I-80, the interstate that goes from the Bay Area to Reno, to Salt Lake and back east. It’s a busier road in winter than in summer because of all the people who go up for skiing weekends. So the Tahoe-Donner area is a mass of cute matchbox lodges (with saunas, deep freezes and computers) pushed into the snow and the rock. The place is further crowded with cocktail lounges and smart burger joints. Eating is no problem, and being snowed in for a night can be a romantic adventure. There’s no need to eat each other, except as some fierce après-ski sport, part of the mixture of adultery and divorce that keeps California turning over. Not that I mean to be pejorative: in matters of romantic failure, California is what it calls a ‘no fault’ state. The state as an enterprise might be better off if it had a sounder tradition of taking some blame. You can talk about ‘no fault’ all you like, but the San Andreas split and those other tectonic abysses in the very structure of California are unimpressed. Sooner or later there’s going to be trouble.

That’s the more immediate ‘point’ of Where I Was From, which seems to be a book in which a famous Californian at last turns her home state in for questioning. In that sense, and as a promotable project, this pioneer life sentence artist may have wandered into weird luck inasmuch as the book’s publication in the States coincided with the bizarre election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. California, in so many obvious ways, has run out of steam, cash and character. It’s a prime moment for Cassandra, if not the Terminator.

But anyone who has been reading Didion for forty years will know that she was born with haunting doubts about her homeland and its legend. She was using Yeats to warn that the centre does not hold 36 years ago. She has been worried about the snakes all her life. And she knows enough to realise that Manhattan is no escape. For what she means by California is America as a whole, or the westward tendency, the restless, vague assertion that it is all going to turn out for the best. Instead of it being a suitable subject for autopsy.

There have been arguments over the years about Didion: has she been just an eloquent cry-baby, a fastidious coroner, whose composure could seem mannered in someone with so many gloomy, if not suicidal inclinations? You could be forgiven, reading some of the earlier books, for wondering if she wasn’t too sad, too delicate or too alienated to last. Where I Was From gives me hope that she could make it to 90 herself: Didion is one tough old bird. I would count on her to sit by the body if necessary, and stay awake all night if she believed there were snakes in the dry grass.

Didion published her first book, the novel Run River, in 1963 (a vintage year for worriers). It was written in New York on a typewriter purchased with money she made as a stringer for the Sacramento Bee. ‘I sat on one of my apartment’s two chairs and set the Olivetti on the other and wrote myself a Californian river.’ It’s a brilliant, precocious book, even if she now finds it tinged with ‘pernicious nostalgia’ or plain homesickness, not to mention those ordeals that are known as trying to grow up. Where I Came From is not a formally direct or complete non-fiction version of her life, but Didion approaches fiction and non-fiction in a similar way – the same ‘smoke’ makes the subjects equally elusive. Indeed, she warns the reader that this book ‘represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely’.

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