Golden State of hypocrisy: An interview with Joan Didion

Joan Didion talks about Arnold and Reagan, the triumph of Wal-Mart ugliness, dot-com insanity, and the betrayal at the heart of the California dream.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 18, 2003 7:09PM (EDT)

Salon (Salon)
Salon (Salon)

Interviewing Joan Didion, as I told a couple of friends recently, is sort of the ultimate no-win proposition for any journalist. Not because she is rude or difficult or cryptic or dismissive of foolishness or anything like that; on the contrary, she proved to be a kind and considerate host who got me an Evian water from her fridge, listened attentively to questions, and answered them thoughtfully. No, the problem is more that if you're a person with literary ambitions who got into journalism and aspires in some way to combine adventurous writing and sharp-eyed reportorial observation, you're inevitably going to compare yourself to Didion and the comparison is unlikely to be flattering.

Didion is not merely one of the greatest living practitioners of the literary journalism tradition, she more or less invented it, at least in its 20th century American incarnation (along with Tom Wolfe, and maybe Janet Malcolm). Her essay collections "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The White Album" remain perhaps the pithiest, most tightly focused portrayals of the disordered cultural life of the United States in the 1960s and '70s to be found in any literary medium. "Salvador" and "Democracy" offer scathing portrayals of the Reagan era at home and abroad, and although I'm not as big a fan of her fiction as of her journalism, the novel "Play It as It Lays" is an important document of SoCal anomie.

Her writing has always been both personal and political. Her prose has the erudition and elegance, on the one hand, of a woman from upper-middle-class society with a good education (which Didion surely is) and also the informality, hunger and daring of someone who lived through an era of revolutionary change and learned to question all such things, as well as to question the notion of revolutionary change itself. And Didion most certainly is that too.

Then there's the problem, for me at least, that Joan Didion, both in her prose and in person, reminds me of my mother. I don't say that they look all that much alike, although there is a certain resemblance; they're both, at this point in their respective lives, the kind of skinny older women, WASP'y, artsy California women, to whom the epithet "birdlike" sticks and cannot be peeled away. They certainly don't sound alike; Didion is extremely soft-spoken and my mother, well, isn't. Didion's new book, "Where I Was From," is largely about her home state of California, and even more than that about the distinctive state of California delusion, or "enchantment," in which she was brought up. It became increasingly clear to me while I was reading the book that my mother -- and by extension I myself -- were brought up in almost exactly the same place.

Early in "Where I Was From" Didion writes that the life she was raised to admire was entirely the product of a certain California-specific isolation, "infinitely romantic, but in a kind of vacuum, its only antecedent aesthetic, and the aesthetic only the determined 'Bohemianism' of 19th century San Francisco. The clothes chosen for me as a child had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, muted greens and ivories, dusty rose, what seems in retrospect an eccentric amount of black." She goes on to say that her family preferred dark houses, copper and brass that had tarnished to green, and "darkened" silver over the well-polished kind. When I told Didion at the beginning of our interview that I had been raised in a cedar-shingled house in Berkeley, Calif., that was designed not by Bernard Maybeck himself but by one of his students, and that my mother mourned the loss of that house to this day, she laughed because she knew exactly what that meant and understood precisely the character of that mourning.

But this aestheticized middle-class self-perception is, Didion argues -- like almost everything else about California's sense of itself -- a kind of con job. As she puts it in what is virtually a topic sentence, "A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up." She sees a state whose history was poisoned at the root by a heritage of carelessness and hucksterism, whose residents have always been willing to mortgage the future for a short-term payout, and whose myth of freedom and independence has always been funded, at mind-blowing, almost unimaginable expense, by the same federal government many of its citizens profess to hate.

In this view of California history, the recent voter rebellion that led to the election of a movie star to statewide office (for not the first or even the second but at least the third time, let us note) is just another manifestation of a pattern that has existed for generations. Didion observes that all Californians think the state has been ruined and corrupted and that something drastic must be done to redeem it. To live in California is to live inside a sort of recurring elegy for what has been lost. We all know it used to be different, used to be better, used to be that paradisiacal garden at the end of the American dream. The precise date of this Garden-of-Eden Golden State varies, but it's generally whenever the person who is doing the complaining first got there.

Californians always believe that their state is being consumed by a cycle of economic boom and rapid change, but Didion makes the case that boom and change are in fact the fundamental qualities of the California experience, from the time of the Gold Rush to the explosion (and implosion) of Silicon Valley. She remembers her mother complaining that California had gotten too regulated, too heavily taxed and too expensive, and talking enthusiastically about moving to the Australian outback. That was in the 1940s, when the state's population was about one-sixth what it is today. That was in Sacramento, a sleepy agricultural burg where everyone who could afford to still built their houses on stilts because the city flooded out almost every winter, and where young Joan Didion learned to swim in the then-undammed Sacramento and American rivers and wrote for the society page of the Sacramento Union.

Near the end of the book, Didion begins to question whether something fundamental has changed in California. Can a state that houses some 36 million people, almost 15 percent of the U.S. population -- a state that has aggressively defunded public education to build a massive prison system, a state with one of the nation's highest rates of endemic poverty -- still sustain a cycle of semi-permanent boom, not to mention its mythic sense of self? Interestingly, however, in my conversation with her she came off more as a classic California libertarian than she may recognize. She clearly laments the destruction of so much of the state's open space beneath funguslike suburban sprawl, but she is so eager to avoid "pernicious nostalgia" that she seems unwilling to support the kinds of centralized planning measures that even political moderates -- and perhaps especially suburban voters -- now yearn for.

"Where I Was From" has all the tension and lyricism of Didion's writing at its finest. It's a haunting and sometimes hilarious tribute to her three generations of California ancestors and to the powerful narrative they wrapped her in, one she now believes to be false and destructive. It's a brave and necessary attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the all-but-forgotten Frank Norris, whose novel "The Octopus" remains the great literary document of 19th century California, in all its greedy contradictions. It's also an effort to reconcile Didion's passionate feelings for the state, and her sense of loss about seeing its magnificent landscape devoured, without surrendering to elitist sentimentality. In one of the book's cruelest moments for any past or present Californian, Didion recalls driving her elderly mother (who died in 2001) from Monterey to San Francisco. Her mother becomes confused about the route, and Didion assures her that they are where they should be, traveling northbound on U.S. 101. "Then where did it all go?" her mother asks, surveying the uniform suburbia around them. A few miles later she adds that California had become "all San Jose."

Despite all this, Didion insists that critics who read "Where I Was From" as a farewell to California, as some kind of symbolic renunciation, are missing the point. She says her own decision to leave California two decades ago (with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne) for a primary residence in New York was more haphazard than anything else. Indeed, she confesses to a kind of bicoastal schizophrenia; she began writing her "Letter From Los Angeles" column for the New Yorker after she had left L.A. for Manhattan, thus conveying to many people the idea that she still lived on the West Coast. She still holds a California driver's license, although, mysteriously, it is imprinted with her New York address.

Didion met with me in the living room of her spacious, book-overloaded apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She lives on the fifth floor but doesn't have much of a view. Above the chair where she sat was a landscape painting depicting the back streets of Las Vegas. It's a distinctive Western horizon, complete with low-rise apartment buildings, old tires, sagebrush and puddles of unidentifiable goo.

"Where I Was From" is a book about your progressive disenchantment with the idea of California, the myth of California that you inherited. But you admit at one point that your confusions, your "misapprehensions and misunderstandings," are as much about America as about California.

Well, I didn't want to go too far with that. It's certainly a book about America in that the idea of moving west, the development of the West, is the key to my idea of America. So, yes, it is a book about America to that extent. I don't think it's about modern America.

But it's about a disenchantment with the whole story. It's not so much a disenchantment as a falling away of enchantment. The whole story being essentially Manifest Destiny, which carried over into a lot of stuff we did and stuff we thought about, even if we didn't articulate it. I mean, it's certainly a big issue right now.

I thought, like most people thought -- like most people of my generation thought -- that America had a special mission. It was unquestioned. I didn't ask myself where we got that mission, who gave it to us. And I certainly wouldn't have thought it was God, had I taken it that far. But we had a destiny, and the settlement of the West was part of that.

And people of your generation shared that belief irrespective of political ideology? Even if they were liberals or radicals or whatever?

Yeah, I think so. I've kind of been all over the map politically. Actually, I haven't changed my way of thinking a whole lot, but as the world has changed it has placed me at different points on the political spectrum. I was a slow study on Vietnam, for example, because I thought it was in some way our mission and our fate to intervene. It took me until quite late in the game, dramatically later than most people I knew. Then one morning I was reading the paper and I realized it didn't add up, you know? Part of it was that I had this idea that we had a special role.

The idea that things don't "add up" -- that's exactly the expression you use in talking about California. It seems like that's the characteristic gesture of your career as a writer: You look at things and calculate when they don't add up.

Well, what happened in Vietnam, when my eyes opened, was very simple. We had been taking a hill at great loss of life. We had been taking it for weeks, and now we had taken it, and now we were retreating from it because it was not strategic. Well, somebody was not telling the truth, right? That was a pretty simple thing.

This book started because I had done a piece for the New Yorker in Lakewood, Calif. [on the decline of the aerospace industry]. By the time I finished the piece, it was much too long, around 18,000 words.

Wow, even too long for the New Yorker!

Even for the New Yorker. And I still hadn't answered any questions as far as I was concerned. I hadn't dealt with a thing. Then I tried to address some of the questions that had arisen in a piece for the New York Review of Books, and I still hadn't addressed them. Then, some years later, I thought I might try to look at California in a more systematic way, so I did this. I don't think I would have been moved to write this book before my mother died [in May 2001]. I had thought of doing it, but it became an overwhelming sense of something to do after she died.

Well, your family history here is so compelling, and so enjoyable. Your story about the grandmother who gave you an ounce of really expensive perfume when you were 6 years old, and all your stories about these extraordinary pioneer women who were your ancestors. Yet you seem to be encouraging yourself, and maybe us too, to resist those kinds of stories -- to resist the idea that our ancestors made us who we are.

Yeah. In one sense, it's because I have an adopted child [her daughter, Quintana]. So it became very clear to me that heredity wasn't the last word.

But the stories are still powerful for you, or they wouldn't be in the book.

I have been astonished by the number of reviewers who say things like, "Didion says goodbye to California. Didion gives up on California." It's a love song, as I read it! So, yeah, the stories still have power for me.

But you don't look to them now for truth or meaning or explanation.

I don't think they have any truth for me. I think they're stories, and they led me into a kind of sentimentality which was destructive, I think, in retrospect.

Yet you also seem to acknowledge that the question of how to deal with the past, with the death of loved ones, that inevitable sense of loss, has no answers.

"There is no real way to deal with everything we lose." Yeah, there's no way to shake loose of these stories. On one level, that's the answer I finally came to. I could start over asking questions about California, but I'd arrive at the same answer, I think. And it's not California, of course. It's where you're from.

What made you decide to leave California?

Oh, I didn't decide to leave. I left when I got out of Berkeley because I had been offered a job in New York, so I came here for eight years. Then, after we got married, we moved to Los Angeles, which was another place to me. I had never lived there. We went for six months and sublet our apartment. Then we stayed another six months. Then we stayed another year. Then we stayed another 23 or 24 years.

When we moved, it was a whole series of things. We had a little apartment in New York, so we were spending more time here. Quintana had gone to college, so she wasn't home. We were spending more time in New York just to change our routine, to get out of town. Then it became uncomfortable in that little apartment, but we couldn't afford both a house in California and a bigger apartment. So we sold the house in California. We could have as easily sold the apartment in New York. It was not a very thought-out decision. We just decided to do it one night at Newark Airport when our plane was late. If in fact we had put our house in California on the market and hadn't sold it, it would have gone a different way.

It wasn't an idea of leaving California. In fact, I immediately started the "Letter From Los Angeles" for the New Yorker, which I had told them I wouldn't do when we were living in California. I just kept going out there. It was a great luxury. I could be there and drive around and ask people questions without any responsibility.

So you weren't drawing some line in the sand, or crossing some Rubicon, with respect to living in California.

No, I still have a California driver's license. I don't know that I'll renew it out there this time. I used to renew it when I was seeing my mother. It actually has my New York address on it. I was renewing it after the Loma Prieta earthquake [in 1989] and the lights had been off in Monterey for several days and everyone was confused. So I said I was living in New York, and asked could I put down that address instead of my California address. They said, "Put down any address where you want us to send it."

So you don't have to be a California resident to have a California driver's license?

Apparently not.

Does that make sense?

I have no idea.

This is pretty obvious, but the book is called "Where I Was From," not "Where I Am From." Did you call it that because that phrase actually occurs in the book?

No, it was the title before it was a phrase in the book. But I didn't think of it in those terms. It surprised me last week, when I was reading at Yale, to come across that phrase. It just seemed to me right. It's not so much about California as it is about a state of mind, an enchantment. That's where I was from.

I recently re-read George Steiner's long essay "In Bluebeard's Castle," in which he says that modern culture is permanently haunted by the ghost of the past. You argue that California is always haunted by this idea of a golden age, and that the Golden Age for a Californian is whenever he first got there.

We're always hearing about some new low that we've reached, like the recall. But in fact the recall is Proposition 13 [the anti-tax initiative of 1978] and a whole lot of stuff. Somebody in the Los Angeles Times pointed out that California undergoes one of these revolutions, these little earthquakes, about every 12 years.

Well, I'm gratified that I got you to mention the recall without actually bringing it up. You must be sick of talking about the recall.

Sick of the recall, yeah.

You quote the character Cedarquist, from "The Octopus," telling someone, "California likes to be fooled."

That line certainly came to mind. I think it's a reasonable way of summing it up. The recall was an expression of anger; it was an expression of huge, unbearable disappointment that the trend isn't up at the moment. California doesn't deal very well with anything but boom. And there's no way that the election of one governor or another is going to change the economy.

Not even an android superhero.

No! [Arnold voice.] "I will fix it." But if you look at it another way, it drains off a lot of anger. And it really probably won't make much difference. I remember reading what Jerry Brown once said, when he was being interviewed about Reagan. He had gone to see Reagan in the governor's office, and he said, "He's acting the part of governor very well. He really has the ceremonial aspect of it down." In the end, that was what it was, because the actual work is all staffed out.

One of your enduring themes is the increasing theatricality of American politics. In the book "After Henry," you write about the total emptiness of the modern political convention, and you compare it to the political spectacles that were held in the Soviet Union.

Before I ever went to a convention or had any exposure to a campaign, for some dumb reason I spent a week or two in the press room of the White House in the mid-'80s. I was going to do a piece I never did, because nobody would call me back. What struck me when I actually got into a campaign, which was in '88, was that it was exactly like the White House press room. In other words, the campaign was the model for the White House day. Consider this crazy thing we have now, where the administration is going around telling its story, right? As if that is going to substantively change either of two things: the economy or what's going on, on the ground in Iraq. It's a campaign idea. It's part of the endless campaign that we have now.

Well, the campaign we have now is driving me crazy. We're several months away from the point when anybody actually begins voting. And by the time anybody actually votes, the campaign is likely to be over.

Yeah. You don't have to win New Hampshire to be the candidate. It will have been decided. I read recently that Howard Dean is running 15 points ahead in New Hampshire, but it's hard to imagine him as the Democratic Party's candidate. The decision will go another way, I would guess.

Mild as he is, he's still too offensive to the power structure?

Yeah, as very mild as he is. This time it's so hard to figure. There's just no one on the horizon.

What do you make of Wesley Clark?

He looked great on CNN when he was doing commentary during the run-up to the war. As a candidate, he doesn't seem to carry that authority. Maybe he carried that general's authority onto CNN and he doesn't feel it now. Many people have mentioned to me how short he is.

Bush is shorter than Gore, and that was the first time the shorter man had won in many years. Of course, then again...

He didn't really win!

Here's a quote for you: "I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself."

That's from "The White Album."

Yeah, from the first page. It began to occur to me that is exactly the process of your writing life, the process of disillusionment and disenchantment.

The problem is that I have a highly developed capacity for denial. I can learn things, I can learn things, and I will immediately banish them from my mind and go on in the same error. I'm always having to start over.

The great Western writer Wallace Stegner used to say that the myth of the West was about masculine individualism, but the reality of the West, to the extent that anything good happened at all, was the more communitarian side of it: women and families and the towns and communities they created. And that's exactly what you focus on with such fondness: your female ancestors.

What was always striking to me was that they kept going in the face of no clear reason to. Not just that they kept going west, but that they kept going day by day. I think my reaction to them was probably more personal. But that's an interesting thing -- those were communities that worked, among the women. Community in general -- well, there was no community in general. Talk about denial.

When you remember your mother, more than 50 years ago, saying that California was too regulated, too taxed and too expensive, isn't that exactly the same emotion that led to the recall?

Exactly. That's what people thought in 1978 when they voted for Prop. 13. I mean, I was amazed this time. I hadn't been out there for a while and I really hadn't gauged the depth of the anger. I didn't think all the people who had signed the petitions would show up at the polls. I just thought they were walking through the parking lot on the way to the car and they thought they could send a message. It was amazing to me that the actual recall happened. Somehow I thought there would be a separation between signing the petition and actually voting.

I mean, the car tax. I did not know what the car tax was. I had never heard of the car tax. Finally someone explained to me: It's the vehicle registration fee! It's just so insignificant.

You also point out that the geographical separation of the state -- north from south, and the inland areas from the coast -- is nothing new in California history. People reacted to that with the recall like it was some revelation.

No, no. There was a moment there when PSA [the now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines] was flying back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco for $12. They had a midnight flight back. You could go for dinner. PSA brought the whole state together in a way it had never been. And then it went away.

I haven't thought about that for years. I remember those silly airplanes...

With the silly smiles! Quintana was very small then. She loved to go on those planes.

As far as the separation of the inland areas from the coast, certainly as far back as I can remember I think it was encouraged. At the time I went to Berkeley, there were certain sororities that girls from the Valley joined, and others that girls from San Francisco joined. We didn't have that many people from Los Angeles, so it didn't figure.

Did you join the sorority that the Sacramento girls joined?

I did, yeah.

The Tri Delt house, is that right?

That's right. There were certain places people from the Valley went -- we went to Carmel. It was a very isolated kind of life.

Part of what you argue, very convincingly, is that the essential nature of California hasn't changed -- it's always been about boom and change. But isn't there an objective element here? The wilderness has been destroyed to build suburban sprawl and McDonald's and Denny's franchises. That is a tremendous difference from 20 years, 30 years ago.

That's certainly true. That's what my mother meant when we said, "Where did it all go? It's all San Jose." But then the whole idea of "California as it was" -- it brings you to that question, which you can't avoid: If we could see it "as it was," how many of us could afford to see it?

What California is, for better or worse, is something that has come to support huge numbers of people and their various dreams for the future. As much as I might like, theoretically, to see it restored to what John Muir saw, I know that's not the right thing. Yes, we can have better planning than filling it with Wal-Marts. But, but, but! Who's going to make that decision? What elite do you appoint? I'm not comfortable with that.

So is there a way for us to ask, without surrendering to nostalgia, "What the hell have we built here? Is it really a good thing?"

Or, as they used to say, what has the railroad brought us? If one wanted to make that study, I suppose the Irvine Ranch [one of the last of the original California ranches, today the Orange County city of Irvine] is the perfect place to make it. That was developed intensively, in a very controlled way.

I mean, planning commissions mostly have no idea what they're doing. The whole planning process in California -- you can't call it urban planning -- no one seems to have given it any serious thought. Theoretically, the Irvine development was different, and what you got was Fashion Island [the enormous mall].

I don't know that there's a good answer here. It's one of the big questions that I failed to answer. It's a big question in my mind.

Well, we don't get central planning authorities in America, whether we want them or not. That's not how it works.

Right. We get the planning commission, and then it's kicked up to the local board of supervisors, which is where the payoff happens.

Has that cycle of permanent change and permanent boom come to an end?

I don't think so. How could it? You mean, because at this moment there are no jobs?

Well, you talk about the fact that California has become a state of poverty more than a state of wealth, and how the schools have been defunded while the state has built dozens of prisons.

Well, it is hard to know how you get out from under that. On the other hand, my brother believes that a new industry always comes along. And for a minute it looked like one had: Silicon Valley. It is hard to know how you get past having basically dismantled the school system. It makes it a different kind of place. Of course you can send your children to private school; I suppose we'll have vouchers to do that soon. But it's not the same kind of place and it doesn't do the socializing. That's not what the state was about. I mean, the U.C. system was an amazing concept.

Right. I feel like I was raised in that Pat Brown welfare state, and that is permanently gone. Maybe some new wave of innovation and wealth is just off the horizon, but it's hard to see right now.

It's hard to know. You have to have faith, like my brother does.

Did you have any personal experience with the dot-com boom, which was maybe the shortest of those cycles in history?

Well, that was a shorter cycle than most. It was clearly going to be a shorter cycle, because it wasn't like building airplanes. The product was so intangible that it wasn't too surprising when it went. In 1996, I was in San Francisco. I had just published a book, and I was scheduled to do a Salon interview with Dave Eggers. I had to call up and ask what Salon was.

We were brand-new then. And that was Dave Eggers before he became famous, too. How did he do as an interviewer?

I thought he was great. I hope he still is, because he's interviewing me onstage next week in San Francisco, at a public event at the Herbst Theater.

When you talk about the "crossing story," the story of coming across the plains to California, you raise a moral conundrum: Does the California experience, the promise of redemption it seems to offer, always entail the abandonment of others?

I think it does. That was the heart of the crossing story: leaving people behind. Not just on the trail, but the people you leave behind when you leave wherever you were from. There were two things that struck me about it, the more I started thinking about it. One was abandonment. The other was the fact that it's an enterprise the whole point of which is survival. There's something missing in survival as a reason for being, you know?

Did that contaminate the history of the state in some way? Is that idea still there? You write that California has not "encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another."

I think so, yeah. I think this willingness to abandon others is still fairly notable.

A state that builds prisons instead of schools.

Yeah, exactly. And I was struck by that book I talk about which had all the great statistics on the commitment of the insane in California. That's a willingness to abandon at a dizzying rate. I mean, the notion of taking care of other people who might or might not be troubled, which people all over the world do, seems not to have entered into it.

You write wonderfully about Frank Norris, the great California novelist and arguably one of the little-known great American novelists. You make a strong case for "The Octopus."

Oh, it's an incredibly complicated, ambiguous work. I guess the right people didn't look at him, or write about him. And I think you had to be interested in California to read him and to know what he was talking about. If you didn't know that this was a more complicated situation than his characters do, you might read it in a different way. The thing that was surprising to me when I started re-reading it was that the Octopus doesn't even turn out to be the railroad. It turns out to be nature!

To go back to Wallace Stegner for a second, one thing that really hit me hard about him was that when he died wanted to be buried in Vermont, where he owned a summer place, rather than in California. He wasn't from Vermont or anything. But he thought Vermont would stay the same, would remain recognizable, much longer than California would.

My mother planned for her ashes to be in a little church she liked in Monterey. They were going to build a little place for ashes. But a year after her death they still hadn't built it, and her ashes were still at my brother's house. So we put them finally at St. John the Divine [the Episcopal cathedral in New York's Morningside Heights], I guess on the same theory: It will be there.

When you look at the future of California, what we're leaving for future generations, do you see it as a hopeful prospect in any way?

I don't think it's unhopeful. You know, it won't be ideal, but there will still be the place, or enough of the place. Yeah, everything is all San Jose, but there's still a lot left, which gives everybody a pass on really doing anything about it.

The cliché is that the West is a place of optimism. Stegner called it "the native home of hope." Does the landscape, the light, the space, have something to do with that? Does it have a psychological effect on people?

I think it does, yeah. The sense of space. I actually have to see flat horizons. It started with the Valley, I suppose. And then later we lived on the ocean. When I hang pictures, there has to be a flat horizon in sight or I get really nervous.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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