In Joan Didion's first collection of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), there is an essay titled "Notes from a Native Daughter." It concerns Sacramento, or more precisely "what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento." What it is like to come from Sacramento, it turns out, is to be in a kind of mourning for a place that is vanishing, a place that was provincial and insular but whose distance from the outside world allowed it to preserve something of value. Didion doesn't make it exactly clear what that something of value was, but it seems connected to the memory of the "sea of grass, grass so high a man riding into it could tie it across his saddle," that covered the Sacramento Valley in the nineteenth century, and to the pioneer toughness that drove the settlers of Northern California across the Sierras. The sense that she might not be worthy of her forebears haunts her, as when she writes of flying home: "The more comfortable the flight, the more obscurely miserable I would be, for it weighs heavily upon my kind that we could perhaps not make it by wagon."
Didion's elegy for old Sacramentoˇwhich, she argues, "lost, for better or for worse, its character" sometime around 1950, thanks mainly to the postwar boom in the defense industryˇis not a simple one. It is complicated by her awareness of the limits that the town's "implacable insularity" imposed (she, after all, presumably left for good reason). Having been raised on farming and ranching, those who were "from Sacramento" (as opposed to newly arriving there) could not figure out a way to fit themselves (psychologically, not economically) into the new world, in which housing developments and factories were replacing farms. The farmers sold their land and took the money, but they didn't seem to understand fully what this meant for their identities. Their fate, Didion writes, is "to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant."
But although Didion's elegy is complex, it remains an elegy, suffused, as she puts it (writing supposedly of her childhood but in fact of her adulthood, too), "with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour." And in one way or another that elegiac tone influenced most of what Didion wrote about California in the '60s and '70s. Her essay "On Morality," from Slouching, begins with a tribute to "wagon-train morality," the simple code that true westerners learn as children. "One of the promises we make to one another," she writes, "is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes." "John Wayne: A Love Song" is, in some sense, exactly what its title says it is, and when Didion writes that somewhere she's still waiting to hear a man say to her, as Wayne did in War of the Wildcats, that he will take her to a house "at the bend in the river, where the cottonwoods grow," you believe her, if only for a moment. And the dreamy "Holy Water," from The White Album (1979), is driven by Didion's peculiarly western "reverence for water."
Even those pieces that seem most explicitly about how strange and fucked-up California is, like The White Album's "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik," have this curious undercurrent, as in Didion's reading of the biker films of the late '60s. To understand the people these movies are made for, she writes, "maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up." This isn't exactly a tribute to these boys, "whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made." But it's not exactly not a tribute, either. California, Didion always made you feel, was tougher and stranger than you could imagine, a place where "a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension."
I mention all this because unless you know how Didion used to write about California, it's difficult to make sense of the way she writes about the state in her new book, Where I Was From, a curious blend of memoir, reportage, and historical speculation. For although it contains some of her most trenchant writing on Californiaˇincluding a sharp account of the state's tortured relationship to the railroads in the nineteenth century and the federal government in the twentiethˇif you come to this book expecting to get a picture of California in all its blooming confusion, you will be disappointed. Didion writes about small-town residents convinced that economic salvation is just around the corner (perhaps in the form of a new prison), middle-class engineers whose jobs are disappearing, and farmers clinging to an imaginary past. But she has little to say about property-tax revolts, recall elections, immigration, race, or even Silicon Valley. But that's how it should be, because Where I Was From is not, in fact, a book about California. It's a book about Didion's old idea of California, and how she stopped believing in it. The title "Where I Was From" (as opposed to, say, "Where I Came From") gives this away, as if Didion were saying she is no longer a native daughter. Throughout the book, she deconstructs the mythology of California that she grew up on and that she herself obliquely propagated in her earlier books, the mythology of pioneer toughness, frontier independence, and that "finest hour" that had supposedly been outlived. She reads her own first novel, Run River, diagnosing its "tenacious (and, as I see it now, pernicious) mood of nostalgia." She shows how California's supposedly self-reliant farmers, the ones who in Frank Norris's The Octopus stood up to the railroads and challenged speculators, were themselves speculators (if failed ones) whose entire wealth was dependent on the railroads to begin with. The heirs of those farmers, meanwhile, would come to depend for their livelihood on massive water subsidies underwritten by taxpayers. As for that wagon-train morality, Didion has come to see that crossing the Sierras "might not after all be a noble odyssey, might instead be a mean scrambling for survival." The pioneers did not always try to retrieve their casualties. Sometimes they left the sick and weak behind in order to make it through. Perhaps California was built not on toughness but on ruthlessness. And, as Didion asks, "When you jettison others so as not to be 'caught by winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains,' do you deserve not to be caught? When you survive at the cost of Miss Gilmore and her brother, do you survive at all?"
The answer, of course, is that you do, and that a terrible choice in the past does not necessarily corrupt the present. But Didion's point is that the refusal to recognize those terrible choices has kept (some) Californians in thrall to an imaginary past and in doing so has made it impossible for them to think seriously about their present. We normally think of California as a place of perpetual reinvention, where people are continually looking forward. As Didion herself wrote in Slouching, "The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past." But the people in Where I Was From cannot stop thinking about the past or trying to hold on to it. Defense workers remain convinced that they will keep their jobs and, once the jobs are gone, that they will somehow come back. Farmers believe that they earned what has in fact been given to them. Real-estate developers and property owners think that they are somehow insulated from spending cutbacks and stock-market crashes. If it was, everyone seems to think, it should and will be.
Ultimately, then, Where I Was From is a powerful meditation on the price and the perils of nostalgia. And it is as serious a self-examination, and self-revision, by a writer of her own personal mythology as I can remember reading. The sentences in this book are quintessential Didion, wonderfully crafted, able to evoke a mood in just a few short words. And the toneˇrueful, knowing, jadedly romanticˇis familiar. What is new is the way Didion brings to herself, and to her home, the same astringency she has brought to so many other subjects over the years. As she puts it, "That I should have continued, deep into adult life, to think of California as I was told as a child that it had been in 1868 suggests a confusion of some magnitude, but there it was." Where I Was From is about emerging from that confusion, but it's also about the reasons for it. For Didion, believing in an imaginary past was a way of keeping dread at bay, of convincing herself that once upon a time, at least, things really mattered. It was an answer to the bleak question her motherˇwhose death ends the bookˇwould often use to end conversations: "What difference does it make?" It's an answer, Didion knows, that no longer works. But because it was an answer of sorts, it's hard to let it go. The last lines in the book are about her final visit with her mother. "I was still pretending that she would get through the Sierra before the snows fell," Didion writes. "She was not."
James Surowiecki is a writer at the New Yorker.