When I feel like nothing will ever be worthwhile again, I read Joan Didion‘s essay “The White Album” to remind myself how good something can be. I have days lately when I forget what books are for, what reading is for, what the point of all this is. I have read “The White Album” five times this year. Its pages are sun-crinkled and dog-eared. Page 27 is taped back together; I’d been reading too fast and tore a semi-circle out of the text. It looks like a bite mark.
“The White Album” is Joan Didion’s wildly scattered and mostly failed attempt at understanding the ’60s, and, by understanding the ’60s, understanding herself. She begins with a transcript of her own mental health examination, her diagnosis as a paranoid psychotic, and ends by recounting a triple homicide in her own neighborhood. In between she meets teenage murderers, Jim Morrison, a leader of the Black Panther movement, student revolutionaries in Berkeley, and, finally, a member of the Manson family. After each section she asks, Was this what it was all about? Was this the point of the ’60s? And what I like about “The White Album” is that she genuinely doesn’t seem to know. The essay could end at any moment, just as soon as she finds what she’s looking for.
Maybe, then, “The White Album” is best understood as an adventure story: a search for something hidden, for clues, for an answer. Or a travel essay: She lived through the ’60s and this is what she saw. Or a memoir: her recollection of first-person, chronological events. But I don’t know. I don’t know how to think of it. I’ve read it a dozen times and still can’t quite figure it out.
Recently I typed “The White Album” word for word into TextEdit just to feel it in my fingers. I typed for three days, and when I was done, I closed the document without saving. What I mean is, “The White Album” has become part of me. But now that I’ve said that out loud, it sounds stupid, and I take it back.
I first read “The White Album” in John D’agata‘s collection The Next American Essay. In his introduction, D’agata says: When she fails, as she claims, to package the sixties into an easily portable container for us, we fail, too. I hadn’t known an essay was capable of doing this, was capable of being such a failure, and yet, at the same time, knocking the air out of my lungs. I set down the book and thought, So this is what reading is supposed to feel like. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill. I picked the book up and read the essay again.
I keep hoping to find something in my life that does not obey the law of diminishing returns, that does not grow stale and tired and flat. “The White Album” may be the closest I’ve come. I read it again and again and it always feels brand new. I worry, though, that if I dissect it too closely, if I cut it down to the bone, it will die on the operating table and I won’t be able to bring it back to life. I worry if I see it naked, it will lose its mystery. I worry about knowing how the magic trick is done. But as I dig down into it, as I tease the pieces apart, I don’t find magic or mystery or bone; I find white space, and air, and paper. I’m starting to think there’s nothing behind it at all. Does a chair obey the law of diminishing returns? I don’t think “The White Album” attempts to be anything more than what it is, that is: a document. That is: ink on paper. You can’t kill it — it’s essay through and through.
Last night my little brother asked me where I find meaning in my life. He’s 19 years old, the age when people ask each other questions like that. He asked if I was trying to contribute to society, to humanity, to the world. He asked if I was trying to have a relationship with God. And I told him that no, those things didn’t even cross my mind anymore. I told him all I really wanted was to get really good at something. I told him all I really wanted was to feel competent and productive. And my point was that there is more to be learned on the surface of life than down underneath. “The White Album” skips along the ’60s like a stone across a pond. Truth lives there, up top. Deep down is where we tell ourselves lies.
Everything was to teach me something. That’s what Linda Kasabian, member of the Manson family, tells Didion in the first few pages of the essay, and it’s an idea Didion adopts for herself, repeats unreferenced and un-ironically at the very end. I’m starting to think this one sentence is what the entire essay is about.
In the same way Didion held up moments in her life and asked, Is this an emblem of the ’60s? I am holding up Didion’s emblem of the ’60s and asking, Is this an emblem of today? Aren’t we just as paranoid, just as neurotic, just as disingenuous? Recently a man kept three women locked in his attic for ten years, impregnating each of them in turn, taking them out into the backyard on leashes. Recently a student in Massachusetts detonated explosives at the Boston Marathon and was found a few days later bleeding under a tarp. Recently I started taking Xanax.
This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself…but now I present this to you as a more cogent question than it might at first appear, a kind of koan of the period.
On the cover of the book The White Album, a book that contains the essay “The White Album,” Didion is stoic and smoking. Her cigarette looks hand-rolled. Her hair looks unwashed. She is wearing a sweater. She’s looking at something. I’ve read in an interview she attributes her success as a reporter to her forgettable appearance, her un-intimidating size. On the cover of this book, though, she is sitting in a t-top convertible smoking a cigarette and I can’t get her out of my head. She may have been forgettable then, but now she’s a knockout.
So. What we have here is a failed attempt at encapsulating the ’60s. A ten thousand-word document of failure. Why is it this document, then, that has affected me more than any other? I’m starting to think success is not all it’s cracked up to be. I’m starting to think failure could be something to aspire to.
Where do I find meaning in my life? I keep thinking about the question my brother asked me. I wonder if my answer was any good, if it was honest. And if it was honest, was it true? Where do I find meaning in my life? Could it be that I find meaning by attempting to find meaning? Could it be that the attempt is what matters? That the outcome is, in the end, peripheral? I don’t know. I don’t know how to think of it. I’ve been living my life for 25 years and still can’t figure anything out. Everything was to teach me something, Linda Kasabian said, Joan Didion said, and now I’m saying that too. I read “The White Album” to remind myself that something can be worthwhile. I read it over and over again. I chew bites from its pages.