Slate takes a look at Joan Didion's new book, "Where I Was From." The verdict is that Didion's latest is not a memoir -- as it is touted to be -- and effectively maintains a veneer of universality around the famed writer. Didion's talent has always been her style, her approach. It invites the reader to adopt Didion's perspectives, and the writer rarely gets in the way. Her approach is great for political and cultural journalism; it's less effective as a biographical tool.
If there is a great deal of personality in her essays, there is very little that is personal. Even in her most superficially revealing essays, like her much-beloved "Goodbye to All That," autobiographical facts give way to typologies. Her crying in Chinese laundries becomes "what it's like to be young in New York." New York becomes "an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself." In the end, for all the spare, vivid details about her walking down the street peering into the windows of brownstones, about drinking gazpacho when she is hung-over, the essay is about moving to New York and about being younnot about Joan Didion moving to New York and being young. This is, in many ways, her gift: She leaves space for thousands of similarly disaffected readers to enter her prose and passionately identify with it.
Her stylistic tics add to the illusion of personal revelation. Didion frequently addresses the reader directly, as if we have entered an intimate form of conversation. She writes, "When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams." And her idiosyncratic cadences, her use of a kind of lulling, incantatory repetition, reinforces our sense of connection to her. Take this passage from The White Album: "It was Morrison who had described the Doors as 'erotic politicians.' It was Morrison who got arrested in Miami in December of 1967 It was Morrison who got up there in his black vinyl pants with no underwear and projected the idea, and it was Morrison they were waiting for now."
And yet even after reading every single word Didion has ever published, how much does one know about her? One knows what she packs on a trip to interview a subject, one knows about the jasmine she smells on the way home from the airport in Los Angeles, but one knows almost nothing about her family, say, or her marriage, or her daughter. The personal information she imparts is so stylized, so mannered, so controlled that it is no longer personal information. The "I" in her essays is an elegant silhouette of a woman.