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Opinion | Didion’s Prophetic Eye on America

In fact, Didion had become increasingly preoccupied with the disjunction between the narratives handed down by teachers and parents, and the realities of daily life. A fifth-generation Californian, Didion explained that her theatrical temperament was shaped by stories of the pioneers who settled California — stories that featured “extreme actions: leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways — those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.”

That outlook informed Didion’s early essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979), which frequently contrasted the austere values of California’s early settlers with the gaudy ones found in the new California of movie stars and haute cuisine. By the time Didion published “Where I Was From” in 2003, however, she’d become more conscious of the contradictions between the mythic narratives Californians cherished and the facts of the state’s actual history. She wrote about how entrepreneurial individualism belied a long reliance on federal land grants and subsidies (financed by the rest of the country’s taxpayers) and how the idea of the westward journey and its redemptive conclusion in the promised land belied the costs of that journey. Members of the Donner party, she reminded readers, ate their dead in order to survive, just as many other pioneers reinvented themselves in the West at the price of jettisoning their families and their roots. (Didion’s great-great-great-grandmother Nancy Hardin Cornwall was a member of the Donner party, though she left the ill-fated group at Humboldt Sink in Nevada to cut north through Oregon.)

The heroines in many of Didion’s novels share this penchant for haphazardly shucking off one life for another, like actors stepping into new roles. In “Democracy,” Inez Victor, a daughter of a wealthy businessman in Hawaii, marries an ambitious politician, gets involved with a charismatic adventurer and somehow ends up in Kuala Lumpur, working with refugees. In “The Last Thing He Wanted,” Elena McMahon — a wife, mother and wealthy Los Angeles hostess — walks away from her old life and washes up in Costa Rica, caught in the middle of an assassination plot involving U.S. aid to the contras.

Such characters made the Didion heroine a recognizable literary figure. They lose their men to accidents and divorce, their children to abortion, illness and the convulsions of history. They are restless survivors given to bad nerves and worse dreams, who often find themselves adrift in some hot country filled with political intrigue — in flight from themselves or a past they do not want to remember.

In fact, one of the recurrent themes in all Didion’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, concerns Americans’ penchant for reinventing themselves, their belief in fresh starts and second acts — a faith, on the one hand, that helped settle this country and fueled the American dream, and yet, on the other, has resulted in rootlessness and anomie, the discarding of personal and public history. Narratives, Didion suggests, can provide order, but that order can also be an illusion — or, worse, in the case of political spin masters, a disingenuous connecting of the dots meant to sell false gods and shoddy goods.

Didion’s most powerful work is painfully aware of the narrative arc ultimately traced by everyone’s life and “the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends.” If many of her essays and books have an elliptical structure in which scenes from the past are juxtaposed with scenes from the present, it’s a narrative method meant to underscore the Möbius strip of time. In “Blue Nights,” she recalls the vanishing of the world she and her husband knew when they were starting out in New York and Hollywood — a time when there was still a Pan Am and a TWA, a time when “we still called the 405 the San Diego” Freeway, when “we still called the 10 the Santa Monica.”

Her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That” memorialized the New York City of her youth and what it represented to her, an aspiring writer in her 20s, finding her way in the world, before disillusion and despair ambushed her. “Blue Nights” similarly juxtaposes bright snapshots of the past — Didion and her husband and daughter on vacation in Hawaii, the three of them at the beach in Malibu, Quintana’s wedding day and the bright-red soles of her shoes — with the shock of her death and the permanence of her and John’s departure.

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