Isabelle Grey had a teenage crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald, followed by a deep attraction to the thrill of Watergate and the chutzpah of gonzo journalism. She became, first, a freelance journalist and non-fiction author, then a television screenwriter and novelist. Her second novel of psychological suspense, The Bad Mother, has just been published by Quercus. Below Isabelle discusses Joan Didion's Where I Was From.
Isabelle Grey on Where I was From: A Memoir by Joan Didion
Where I was From was Joan Didion's first memoir, published in 2003 and since eclipsed by The Year of Magical Thinking. It begins with her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's birth and ends with her mother's death. 'There is no real way,' she writes, 'to deal with everything we lose.' What is lost in this book is her relationship to the place where she grew up - California. The book both enables the loss and charts it. It is a story of disillusion, disengagement, of 'misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely'.
It is part nostalgia and part recantation (Didion made her name, after all, writing about a California she here disowns), and also typically fastidious. In addition to genealogy she enquires forensically into history, climate, immigration, state finance, cultural values and mythology. I read it soon after finishing Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, with which it dovetails in illuminating ways.
Didion collected her early magazine pieces about California (she was born in Sacramento and graduated from Berkeley) in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968 when I was a schoolgirl. I was a precocious admirer of Watergate-era investigative reporting, gonzo journalism and what Tom Wolfe dubbed the New Journalism, and so was both intrigued by and jealous of her as the only woman in a male pantheon.
I'd been hooked by Wolfe's notion that 'it is possible to write journalism that would... read like a novel', and since then have continued to follow how the way in which reporters put themselves at the heart of their narratives developed into new forms of memoir, biography and autobiography.
From Truman Capote's In Cold Blood through Richard Holmes's Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer to a variety of texts by W.G. Sebald, Suzannah Lessard, Hilton Als or Lisa Cohen, the notion that a writer's relationship with his or her material can be negotiated differently, obliquely, in order to differentiate 'truth' from 'fact', to reveal the many ways in which facts can be untrue, has made for beguiling reading.
Within that canon, Where I Was From is both a revisionist text – a confession that Didion's cherished beliefs about California simply don't 'add up' – and a further development of the genre. Its interrogation of her 'memory' of the old California, of the frontier code taught by her grandfather that you kill every rattlesnake you see so it cannot bite the person who comes after you, also lays bare her 'tenacious wish not to examine whatever it was I needed to believe'.
Didion told The Paris Review in 2006 that she had 'started a book about California in the seventies... but I could never go anywhere with it for two reasons. One was that I still hadn't figured out California. The other was that I didn't want to figure out California because whatever I figured out would be different from the California my mother and father had told me about. I didn't want to engage that.' It is an admission that, in losing her 'memory' of California, she loses a part of herself; it is an assertion that the perpetuation of national myths may be to do with loyalty to family identity. When such myths are dispelled, what remains of us? 'The past could be jettisoned,' writes Didion, '... but seeds got carried.'
Forty years after Tom Wolfe's claim that 'it is possible to write journalism that would... read like a novel', the question has to be asked whether fiction can in fact deal as effectively with such themes of identity and loss as these new narrative forms? What is the 'real way to deal with everything we lose'?
Such 'new memoir' is a modernist endeavour, concerned with the nature of subjectivity, shifting perceptions, the existence of the self in relation to time and to the text. I have been a journalist and non-fiction author, and have written fiction, television drama and docu-drama. There are many ways to convey the 'truth' about people and events, just as there are many versions of the 'I' who writes them.
Where I Was From is about how places appear different when we change, about the ways in which we are changed when our perception of place is altered, about what it means to define ourselves in relation to time and place, and about how where we are from remains as shifting and insubstantial as where we are now.
I remain both jealous and intrigued.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]