One way of describing Didion’s genius (there are many) is to note that she always permits, even invites the subjects she endeavors to report on to report on her as well. Didion knew growing up that she was from an old California family; as she got older she realized there is no such thing. In Where I Was From, she explores the cultural, social, and economic histories of the state with her characteristic mix of brilliant synthetic summary and piercing detail, and gradually begins to incorporate her personal experience, seeking to understand not just a set of historical phenomena, but her own identity as well. It is thrilling.
There are so many moments and passages I could single out for their clarity of thought and elegance of expression, but as a would-be writer myself, I’ve got to call out Didion’s perfect and insane decision to devote a chapter of this book to a critical analysis of her first published novel, Run, River (1963), which Didion wrote about her home and family in California while she was homesick living in New York as a young woman. First, who does that? Second, her critique is remarkably clear-eyed and unsparing, considering her close connection to her topic. But more, the move is a dramatization of the fact that while we may tell ourselves stories in order to live (to quote Didion herself), the stories of ourselves we tell ourselves ain’t always quite correct. As a result, it’s sometimes necessary to look back at those stories and, if not revise them, have a look at why they made sense at the time, and how their usefulness has failed to endure. This is a great insight on Didion’s part, and it dovetails beautifully with her thinking about California. Is there any other place in the world where the actual and the imagined are so indistinguishable? Maybe one moral of this book is that we are each sort of Californias unto ourselves.