Topical Focus is a new series of reviews discussing older novels and contextualising them within the modern day.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” opens Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection, The White Album. Already synonymous with California and an icon of the literary world, Didion returned with her first non-fiction book in a decade a different woman from the one she was before.
Ordinarily taking on the role of moral analyst, Didion admits her lack of interest in contextualising the madness around her. Clueless as to the direction of her life as she approaches middle age, and to the direction of her country, she slides down the surface of chaos, aware that the time she is living through cannot be accurately understood or analysed. Incapable of subscribing to the “stories” people around her believe, Didion sets off across Los Angeles to explore the people at the heart of Hollywood, as well as its outsiders, in order to understand the mood of a society in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In the opening essay, which gives the collection its name, Didion visits a Black Panther member in prison (who may or may not have murdered a white policeman) who speaks in impenetrable, politicised soundbites. She parties with carefree music industry in the bubble of her Hollywood mansion, which may or may not be reclaimed by its owners and bulldozed the next morning. She buys a dress for Linda Kasabian, star witness in the Manson Family murder case, to wear to her trial, and later joins her on a visit to the Statue of Liberty with their daughters.
In other words, Joan Didion’s world is one strung together by strange encounters, populated by secretive, dispassionate, and occasionally violent people. At the same time Didion divulges deeply personal information about her own life, at one point citing her doctor’s analysis of her disturbed mental state: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her”. Never hesitant to bare her soul, the novel charts the collective unravelling of society through the personal unravelling of a singular woman.
These seemingly disconnected essays which make up the novel are indisputably 60s: the title itself comes from the iconic 1968 Beatles album, a record which Didion found unsettling, and was cited by Charles Manson — a figure who haunts every page of the novel — as a catalyst for The Family’s murder spree. It was written whilst the Vietnam War reached its peak, whilst an untrustworthy Nixon ruled America, and whilst social movements for liberation rocked the country.
And yet, for a novel so distinctly of its time, something in the writing feels current, and entirely relevant to our own situation 40 years later. Didion’s novel is celebrating its anniversary in a world slowly going on fire, at the same rate as leaders on both sides of the Atlantic lose touch with the countries they were elected to lead. Early in the novel Didion admits she “participated in the paranoia of the time”. Whilst political disillusionment, the threat of war, and ceaseless social uproar dominates the global conscience, this wave of paranoia that defined the late 60s seems to have resurfaced with minimal changes — and her style of fractured, irreverent journalism only further speaks to the turbulent uncertainty of our current era. The White Album serves as a companion for living through times that don’t make sense.
Perhaps what is most striking about Didion’s novel however is the theme that holds together the different essays: her idea that, regardless of the chaos in the world, life adapts and goes on just as before. Whether exploring key figures in history or her own instability, the novel is filled with people struggling to adapt to the new landscape. She teaches us that whatever form our paranoia takes — be it Brexit, gun violence, or climate change — uncertainty is the one constant, and the fears of one generation will inevitably wash away as they are realised and replaced with another’s. Didion claims the paranoia of her time was “fulfilled” by Manson, which leaves the reader wondering as they reach the final pages when the mounting anxiety of today will cease and if our ending will be uplifting – as our leader’s stories promise us – or if it will be as bleak and terrifying as Didion warns.