South and West, From a Notebook
Published by Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2017
Joan Didion, perhaps one of our most gifted and celebrated authors, prepared for her writings by keeping extensive notes and observations. Her newest book, South and West, is a compilation from two of her notebooks: the first, a 1970 road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; the second begun from a Rolling Stone assignment in San Francisco. Although these notes are often unstructured and free form, it is a remarkable view, first into southern America, and then into Joan Didion herself. As usual, her prose is crystalline; her imagery immaculate.
In “South”, Didion interviews local business people, and describes, among other things, diners, roadside views, a deserted reptile farm, a ladies’ brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention, the heat, the air, overheard conversations, confederate flag beach towels at motel pools, a slave owner’s certificate framed on a wall.
In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical difference between the quick and the dead…..It’s vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage…are the basis of much conversation.…. they also talk…as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay…the idea of wilderness as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.
…the isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?……The solidarity engendered by outside disapproval, a note struck constantly.
On the Road from Meridian to Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “We crossed over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.”
As “West” begins, what is instantly felt is the marked difference between southern culture defined by the past, and western culture where the past seems inconsequential. Begun as a “possible piece” about the trial of Patty Hearst, this notebook morphs into self-reflection as Didion discusses her privileged upbringing in Sacramento; social hierarchies, women she has seen as role models, and her thoughts on the West.
In the center of this (California) story there is a terrible secret…and the secret is the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls…the Pacific still trembles…tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep…..In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
Fifty years ago, Didion writes with eerily prescience: “I had only some dim and unformed sense…that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was…:the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
It is fascinating to read these notes in 2017.