Book Reviews

South And West: From A Notebook (Knopf)

 

South And West: From A Notebook
Joan Didion
Knopf

I’ve always found Joan Didion’s writing a mixed bag. While she is an excellent essayist, her fictional work is often dull, self-indulgent, and it’s not her strong suit. But even in her lesser work, she has a very strong ability to invoke vivid imagery. When this is applied to more introspective matters, the result is powerful, engaging, and often moving work that stays with you long after you have finished reading. She doesn’t just let us know about her world, she allows us to get inside her brain and see the world as she sees it.

South and West: From A Notebook is her latest work, and it is slightly different from her more recent books. The thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled notes from a road trip through the South in 1970; the second piece compiles notes from an unreleased Rolling Stone article about the Patty Hearst trial. Thus, readers expecting a full, detailed, and well-toned and insightful Didion essays may be disappointed; she presents these two collections seemingly as-is.

The first piece, entitled “Notes on the South,” constitutes the bulk of the text. As she and her husband drive through the Southern regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, she documents the world around her – everything from tourist traps, small cafes, to swimming pools at cheap motels. She talks to locals ranging from business owners, sports figures, journalists, and beauty salon owners. What she is experiencing is a South that is growing, changing, adapting, and revitalizing itself in a modern, desegregated South. Didion’s writing is so vivid in its description of her travels that one can feel the humidity and the oppressive sultriness that is par for the course every Summer.

But there’s a nagging feeling that “Notes On The South” isn’t meant to be a pleasant ride through Dixie. Didion’s ambivalence to Southern culture is somewhat obvious, and when she hears leaders of the community discussing the growth and opportunity that are coming to the South as a result of the changes in culture, one cannot help but detect skepticism about it. One also wonders if the reason her article never materialized is because the experience did not yield a confirmation of her notions as to what she and her potential audience might have expected. Things really were changing in the South, and believe it or not, they were changing for the better. Slowly, yes, but a gradual change is better than none at all.

The second collection, “California Notes,” is brief—too brief, in fact, to be captivating. Once again, she does a good job at describing her surroundings, but there’s simply not enough substance to the section to gain any insight; it simply reads like what it is: a collection of notes and idea sketches. Disappointing? Not really; read once, it’s as interesting as viewing a roadside museum, interesting, but it doesn’t really warrant a return visit.

South And West: From A Notebook feels very much like what it probably is: a posthumous work compiled and completed by its author and released before her demise. At 82, it is understandable why Didion would want to have a hand in defining the vaults of her notes an unreleased work. Though brief, South And West is a compelling read from one of the best essayists of our time.

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