Passages: Joan Didion

From “Rock of Ages,” a short piece in Joan Didion’s 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

Alcatraz Island is covered with flowers now: orange and yellow nasturtiums, geraniums, sweet grass, blue iris, black-eyed Susans. Candytuft springs up through the cracked concrete in the exercise yard. Ice plant carpets the rusting catwalks. “WARNING! KEEP OFF! U.S. PROPERTY,” the sign still reads, big and yellow and visible for perhaps a quarter of a mile, but since March 21, 1963, the day they took the last thirty or so men off the island and sent them to prisons less expensive to maintain, the warning has been only pro forma, the gun turrets empty, the cell blocks abandoned. It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat.

I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here.

Didion’s book was published a year before a group of American Indians occupied the island for 18 months in order to make a statement about self-determination and Indian titles to unused federal lands. If she’d gone afterward, she would have seen what I did: red spray-painted fists making a power salute on many of the walls, painted over white but with the red fist still showing through.

The first Didion collection I read was The White Album, which has some excellent pieces in it — I particularly recommend “Bureaucrats,” which shows the arrogance of California engineers conceiving “diamond lanes” for traffic, those horrors that would later be inflicted on New Jersey — but too many of the pieces seemed to justify the criticisms I’d always heard about her: chiefly the jittery self-regard, the equation of personal problems with greater public malaise, as though an inability to find someone to do decent bathroom grout means the gyre is widening and the center of civilization will not hold. There was also the essay about her migraines, which seemed to go beyond self-parody.

I put Didion aside for a few years and came back to her via Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I picked it up because I’d been interested in the prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay ever since I saw the film Birdman of Alcatraz as a boy. The passage above, and the sentence about sometimes wanting to live in a place with a moat, not only summed up why I’d always been fascinated by the idea of a fortress island in the middle of one of the world’s busiest ports, it also showed me I was probably a little more simpatico with Joan Didion than I might have thought.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains one of my favorite books; together with George Orwell’s selected essays, it is essential reading for anyone who writes nonfiction. Though it shares many preoccupations with The White Album, I think of it as more probing, less glib — The Day of the Locust, where The White Album is more like Hotel California

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