Monday, November 28, 2016

The White AlbumThe White Album by Joan Didion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political heights, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood."

My first book by Joan Didion and certainly not the last: I like the clear, lean prose and while The White Album (1979) is quite far from perfection, it is compulsively readable and many passages demonstrate the author's understanding of social mechanisms and the climate of the era. This collection of essays written between late 1960s and late 1970s - a collage of impressions and snapshots of the turbulent and important times of a social and cultural revolution that almost happened - is an indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand the nature of the Sixties and their contribution to the contemporary history.

The title essay and the longest piece in the set is a fascinating portrait of the seminal years of 1968 and 1969. It captures the reader's attention with the most famous and infamous figures and events: the author participates in The Doors' recording session, talks to Huey Newton about his "politics of revolution", interviews Eldridge Cleaver, and discusses the Manson murders with Linda Kasabian who participated in the crimes. Yet what greatly bothers me about this essay is the sensationalist tone, the name-dropping (for instance, mentioning that the author and Roman Polanski are godparents of the same child, etc.), and succumbing to the cult of celebrity so prevalent in this country. Well, writing about celebrities sells thus allowing the author to work on less popular but deeper pieces, so maybe Ms. Didion should be forgiven.

There are in the set several profound essays of which I will mention just the ones that particularly captured my attention. In On the Morning After the Sixties Ms. Didion contrasts her so-called "silent generation" - she went to Berkeley in the early 1950s - with the late Sixties Berkeley students, the generation that wanted to change the world and fully believed it could be done:
"We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate."
Three fascinating essays focus on the beginnings of the serious feminist movement. Ms. Didion shows the lunacy of the "class approach" to feminism, popular in 1960-1970s and juxtaposes the feminist baloney with a story about Georgia O'Keeffe, a woman who rather than talk about feminist issues and publish empty manifestos did a lot to actually help the women's cause.

In the collection the reader can also find a hilarious account of the author's interview with Nancy Reagan and a deep and sad story of the Jaycees "determined to meet 1950s head-on in 1969," people who were "betrayed by recent history". Several less impressive pieces round up this set of essays, yet the collection is a pleasure to read and provides a lot of material for contemplation.

The White Album offers one of the better portrayals of my generation - people who were in college in the late 1960s. Funny how - even though I lived on a different continent and under a so-called Communist regime - I can recognize my own motives and beliefs of these tumultuous times 50 years ago.

Three and a half stars.

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