Why Joan Didion’s California Endures

Joan Didion observed America in style. Style, in the fashionable sense, yes – behind those iconic oversized dark sunglasses and muted chic clothes – but more so in the style that made her prose so distinctly hers. Born in Sacramento, California in 1934, Joan Didion made her name by astutely documenting the malaise sweeping California in the 1960s and 1970s.

First attempting to write fiction as a new arrival in New York City, it was in fact Didion’s collection of non-fiction magazine pieces that established her idiosyncratic form: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968.

To both the American and international imagination, California has since its inception been continuously regarded as a dreamland, an abstraction of entrepreneurial ambition permanently awaiting the emboldened individual seeking its treasures. From nineteenth-century settlers who left home in search of gold, to the allure of Hollywood fame and fortune, California is a story in itself, a narrative memorialised through decades of its inhabitants sustaining the promise that, here, land, freedom and wealth are as boundless as the Pacific coast horizon. The “land of opportunity” reaches its pinnacle in the Golden State.

When Joan Didion observed in 1965 that “it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously began, tabula rasa…the day the wagons started west”, she described this mythologising of the state as a story authored by its characters. Erasing the indigenous and then Hispanic history of occupation preceding it, modern California is conceived as a new beginning, a reality in which the past is nothing but an inconvenient ghost to be extinguished, a place where boundaries of truth are set by its narrators. Just like a novel, California is a fiction promising illusion and escape. So much so, Didion wrote, that:

It is hard to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realize how much of anyone’s memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else’s memory, stories handed down on the family network.

That California exists along fictitious planes was no obstacle for Joan Didion; rather, her chosen style of writing about it was perfectly apt. Didion wrote into the California she saw before her using a style that briefly enjoyed popularity during her time of writing.

A method of reporting borne out of the cultural and critical changes of 1960s America, New Journalism challenged prior orthodoxies and brought principles of the literary form into journalistic storytelling. Whereas traditional journalism prizes objectivity and reporting of fact as the greatest standard of legitimacy, New Journalism saw ‘truth’ as a subjective construction and sought to report news stories with holistic, in-depth insight. Those in this field identified that if literature can achieve the communication of an idea by way of plot, character and linguistic style, then journalists can too employ those elements to tell a convincing, insightful story.

Didion captured California with expertise by immersing herself in the narrative pre-existing before her. Nowhere else is this more evident that in the title essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Noticing the depravity and unrest in 1967 San Francisco, Didion embarked on the city, the place where “the social haemorrhaging was showing up”, to investigate. “I did not even know what I wanted to find out”, she wrote, “and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends”.

Over the short while, Didion spent time with a select group of teenagers enjoying daily acid trips, crack cocaine and meth highs and the last drags of social welfare packages. She accompanied them in their lives and they let her in, permanent recreational intoxication numbing their aversion to “media poisoners” (journalists) such as herself.

Viewing San Francisco through the narratological lense of character, plot and concurrent running themes, Didion was only truly able to capture the ‘story’ of 1967 by writing herself into the story and existing alongside the characters, as she would the author of a novel.

To those who looked at 1967 San Francisco on the surface, what occurred was an intoxicated mess, a society apolitical and unengaged. But as Didion so incisively pointed out, the “peculiar beauty” to the anarchic “political potential” was not “clear to the press, which at varying levels of competence continued to report “the hippie phenomenon” as an extended panty raid; an artistic avant-garde led by such comfortable YMHA regulars as Allen Ginsberg; or a thoughtful protest”. It was, however:

Of course the activists…those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic – had long ago grasped the reality which eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempts of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that society’s atomization could be reversed.

By getting inside the experiences of the protagonists she followed, Didion was able to unpack the deterioration of San Francisco that was happening so clearly in tandem with the illusionary promise of California. A place where parents went missing and infants were given LSD, San Francisco was the realisation of the utopian dream of endless freedom at its knees.

Where others saw decline and rapid cultural change, Didion saw a plot point within the context of an overarching narrative.

California has not changed, neither has it reformed its unsustainable mortgaging of an elevated reality. It has in fact only usurped its mythological roots into more territories: drug-induced political protests may no longer characterise San Francisco, but another version of collective madness remains firmly in place.

The technology sector in Northern California rests upon the same gold-rush narrative of inconceivable wealth and an alternative world order that previously showed up in the city’s compulsion towards hallucinogenics.

San Francisco is now as much an imagination of its central protagonists – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, to name a few – as was observed by Didion half a century ago. A tabula rasa – a place where everything is new and anything is possible – epitomises the Silicon Valley dream no less than what pervaded the region before. And so, in addition to what the acclaimed reputation and numerous awards tell us, Joan Didion’s California endures even within a saturated literary landscape because the story of California she traced with crystalline precision remains as relevant and critical today as it did fifty years ago.