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In “On Keeping a Notebook,” an essay in her 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion recalls “a Big Five tablet, given to me by my mother with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts.” Didion, who was 5 at the time, remembers her first notebook entry, “an account of a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in the Arctic night, only to find, when day broke, that she had stumbled onto the Sahara Desert, where she would die of the heat before lunch. I have no idea what turn of a five-year-old's mind could have prompted so insistently 'ironic' and exotic a story,” she acknowledged.
Didion, who's now 82, has kept notebooks throughout her 50-plus year career. Her copious recording, collecting and augmenting of information, snatches of conversation, inklings of sentences that turn into paragraphs and paragraphs that grow into scenes has produced some of the raw material for five novels, nine works of nonfiction and a play. It's a body of work that has cut a singular swath through American arts and letters, narrative journalism, politics and popular culture.
Didion’s latest book, “South and West: From a Notebook,” is a slim volume consisting of two previously unpublished excerpts from notebooks she kept during the 1970s. “Notes on the South,” the longer and by far more substantive of the two, comprises jotted notes, summaries, transcripts and other background material Didion collected in June 1970, during a month-long car trip through the south with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne.
"California Notes," the second excerpt, is a scanter, fragmentary assemblage of some of Didion’s conflicted thoughts about her own past and her native California — written while she was nominally on assignment covering the 1976 Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone.
A fifth-generation Californian, Didion flew to the Gulf Coast in 1970 in part, she has said, because she “had a theory that if I could understand the South, I would understand something about California, because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South.”
The notion is counterintuitive, as Nathaniel Rich points out in his foreword to “South and West.” Those regions, after all, “represent the poles of American experience — the South drowning in its past, the West looking ahead to distant frontiers.”
Didion’s notebook indicates she didn’t find much of what she was looking for in the South. Nor did she gain much understanding — or appreciation — of the region and its people.
She was put off from the get-go by the atmosphere -- the sultry climate. “Notes on the South” opens:
"In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never rejects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence."
Here as elsewhere, Didion, who somewhat famously dislikes doing one-on-one interviews and considers interviewing public figures pointless, functions less as an on-the-scene reporter than an unobtrusive observer with a gift for gleaning and distilling meaning. She locates that here, less in public discourse than in what is said offhandedly ("I never been anywhere I wanted to go"), and during casual conversation ("Jackson State" — where police had shot and killed two students and injured 12 just a month before — "was a set-up," one woman confides). She pays particular attention to what is repeated, listening, during two stultifying lunches, to local men of stature describe the advantages and the vestiges of the “feudal situation” on wealthy country estates.
Didion — who’s always been a bit of a class snob, and who could be characterized as a charter member of the coastal elites — is dismayed at the apparent disregard for native son William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. She’s exasperated at the number of eyebrows she — a married woman who wears bikinis but not her wedding ring — raises during her journey. And she’s irritated that she repeatedly finds herself “a few hundred miles and a culture removed from any place that serves [dinner] past 7:30 or 8 p.m.”
But after spending time at a Mississippi broadcasters convention, an event packed with group meals, entertainment and other ancillary events, Didion is genuinely disturbed by realizations such as this: “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.”
Such observations, Rich suggests in his forward, tie Didion’s 40-some-year-old notebooks to the present: “Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else,” he writes.
Rich makes a case that Didion’s notes, "which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of the time in which they were written" — as well as our own. The writing itself — "the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation — has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain," he contends. " 'South and West' offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls."
The problem with this analogy is that there is no “factory” here; no discernible sequence or stages of progress because there is no product. Didion didn’t return to either project she began to chronicle here. Indeed, during her uncomfortable southern sojourn, Didion had a sense that "all the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South." She did desultory research throughout her stay, but was so eager to get out, she wrote, that she avoided cities with airports that offered direct flights and easy access to East and West Coast capitals.
There is plenty of material here, nevertheless, to delight and engage legions of Didion fans. But “South and West” may best be approached as what it is: a scrapbook of background notes, thoughts and early drafts by one of the most extraordinary writers of our time.