For a writer to take ownership of a place, to stake out their position in its liminal spaces, they perpetuate their vision into art and popular culture, and in turn, our collective memory. When we read we are unrelentingly challenged to deconstruct writers’ visions and how they shape our perspectives of familiar places. Together, as writer and reader, we enliven the phenomena of fiction, that through fiction places are transformed, plucked out of objectivity and into a metaphysical realm, resemblant of, albeit distorted, the place itself. And this vision is what really counts; what culture and art reveal to us, what we see in the world is sufficiently, and entirely, as the world is. Or may as well be.
In her new book, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes: “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
California belongs to Joan Didion.
Michiko Kakutani wrote this in the New York Times in 1979. Once you’re familiar with Didion, it’s difficult to hear news reports, or read about or watch on television anything Californian without her vision of the Santa Ana and the Mojave desert and the highways and the empty spaces, elbowing their way forward in plain sight. Below, evidenced by various Didion quotations, we explore California, namely, Didion’s own experience of California that has for the last four decades been translated into something of cultural phenomena and its own very real reality: her burning, amorphous, enigmatic, spiritual, golden metropolis in all its mystique.
“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people and floods others with an amorphous unease.”
“…devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves… It is the season of suicide, and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”
“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant… Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new lifestyle, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.”
“Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.”
“The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participation requires total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”