Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook confounded me on so many levels. The piece began as a notebook the author kept when she spent a month in “the South” – as though it were a specific place instead of a region in 1970. As a twenty-one year-old who was born in 1995 and grew up in Chicagoland area, I might as well have been reading about someone’s trip to China for all I could relate to its 1970’s pop culture references and vanished cultural phenomena (apparently, people back then used to pump your gas for you).
Yet despite the blatant racism, horrible poverty, and ridiculously cheap prices of the era, there was something about the book still that I found strangely intriguing. The foreword, written by Nathaniel Rich, implies that the book is supposed to lead readers to some sort of deeper understanding of present-day (2016) America. I can see it to a certain extent, as the actions and rhetoric of President Trump shares the same discriminatory, stubborn slant to it as many people Didion encounters over the course of her trip. I, however, couldn’t help but focus upon how much has changed since the work was first penned:
A tribute to coverage during Hurricane Camille… After that crisis ‘celebrities from all over the U.S. came down, Bob Hope, the Golddiggers, Bobby Goldsboro. Bob Hope coming down, that really made people see that the country cared.’ Mrs. McGrath from Jackson leaning close to tell me Jackson State was a setup (Didion 39).
Passages like these date the notebook more than if you were to slap a “Made in 1970” label on the front cover. Part of me wonders how different the places she went would be today. There were a few things I recognized, such as the prevalence of the Confederate flag (although that, too, is changing in many places).
Though the timeframe provides an unfamiliar setting, contributing more to the sense of confusion that pervades the work is its unabashedly fragmented quality. There is no real plot, no conflict, no definitive ending – it is as though it is one of those works that are released unfinished because the author is dead. The only uniting thread throughout this series of vignettes is that they look at the South and its people through Didion’s eyes.
I don’t know whether it is due to the fact she is from California or the fact that she is a woman in the 1970s, but throughout the piece, people are constantly trying to tell Didion how it is in the South. But Didion can see this for herself. What she finds is a region steeped in history and living in the past, largely resistant to the change that has been all but forced upon it, but is nevertheless slowly being dragged along by it. While I did not particularly enjoy the book due to its draft-like nature and unfamiliar allusions, I would offer a tentative recommendation to anyone interested in observing the tides of change, politics of race, and the intriguing conundrum of the human being.
About the Author: Joan Didion is the author of five novels and nine books of nonfiction. Her collected nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, was published by Everyman’s Library in 2006. Born in Sacramento, California, Didion now lives in New York City.