BISHOP JAMES PIKE'S brother-in-law, joining a search party after the bishop's disappearance, prays for the assistance of "God, Jim Jr., and Edgar Cayce." A would-be suicide, "in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement," enters a three-year executive training program sponsored by the Bank of America. During a campus revolution, a note on a cafeteria door publicly announces an "adjet-prop [sic ] committee meeting in the Redwood Room." A former Charles Manson follower reveals that her greatest dream is to open a combination restaurant-boutique and pet shop; the Jaycees may be the last true underground society of America; and a growing number of people appear to believe that "No man is an island" is a quotation from Ernest Hemingway.
Admirers of Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Joan Didion's first collection of essays, will recognize at once her skewed, wry world, which often resembles the setting for a story by Donald Barthelme. The White Album , her second collection, is a kind of battle report from the '60s - brief notes from someone who manages to be an outsider, observing dispassionately, even when she is wounded in the cross-fire.
She introduces the decade by quoting a psychiatrist's evaluation of her, made in 1968: ". . . patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. . . . Emotionally, patient has alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings . . . a variety of defense mechanisms including intellectualization, obsessive-compulsive devices, projection, reaction-formation, and somatization . . . ."
"By way of comment," Joan Didion says, "I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."
The house she inhabited during this period lay in a "senseless-killing neighborhood," as one of her acquaintances described it, and her mother-in-law's framed verse blessing the stranger at the door seems "the kind of 'ironic' detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found." Unease, foreboding and even terror color Joan Didion's perceptions of the '60s, but something cool and still in her voice prevents The White Album from being too disturbing to read. It's as if she were gazing through the wrong end of a telescope. Describing a man's intrusion into her house, she says, "We looked at each other for what seemed a long time, and then he saw my husband on the stair landing. 'Chicken Delight,' he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, not was he carrying any. I took the license number of his panel truck. It seems to me now that during those years I was always writing down the license number of panel trucks. . . . I put [them] in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came." Her grave style of speech lends the scene an eerie motionlessness. We share her apprehensions, of course (we shared the '60s, after all), but this is something oddly finer and more tightly focused than our own experiences. In a strange way, it's even funny; ourselves, our times, our bogeymen written up as anthropological curiosities.
Not all the essays are so shadowed. There's a wonderful critique of Doris Lessing, a report on what it feels like to be prey to migraine headaches, and a panegyric to that rarest of commodities in California - water. ("Not many people I know," she says, "carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries.") There's an intelligent discussion of the women's movement, in which she wonders why Every-woman - that poor, downtrodden soul who is forced to choose between humiliation in a public restaurant or a doughnut in her hotel room - should stay in hotels "where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service."
It's a temptation to go on quoting forever, just to enjoy the precision with which Joan Didion uses words. Some phrases in The White Album are so exact, so supremely accurate, that you almost hear a little clink ! as they fall into place. And she is particularly good at finding how words are strung together by obscure branches of modern society - by the water-transporters, the highway departments, the teachers of "shoping-center theory" (a course she once took, if you can believe it). "Putting some over the hill," "the gawk effect," "anchoring the mall" - there must be something remaining from our infancy that makes it highly gratifying to learn the names of things, if only for their own sakes.
A warning: this is not a book to read at one sitting. The very tone that is so appealing - the ironic voice, the distance - can distance even the reader, if it goes on too long at a stretch. On what remote cliff is this person standing, anyhow? we begin to wonder. What would she not view from outside? It's best to read these essays as they were written: one by one, slowly, reflectively - like very good olives. Properly savored, The White Album is a true satisfaction.