By forgetting it, of course. Forgetting is the great secret that allows the California myth to bloom, Didion suggests. Forgetting is what allowed Virginia Reed, one of the survivors of the Donner catastrophe, to write to her cousin: "But thank God, we are the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything, but I don't care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don't let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can."
Forgetting, not caring for having left everything, hurrying along as fast as one could was what seemed to animate Didion's mother, who, despite having roots in California that went back for generations, "spoke enthusiastically . . . about moving to the Australian outback."
"Just leave California?" her husband asked. Could she really give it all up and forget California?
"In a minute," she replied. "Just forget it."
Mass forgetting is what allows Californians to stand aside while their landscapes, their buildings, their developments, sometimes their whole towns are periodically torn up and rebuilt. And it's forgetting that ultimately strands Californians in history, dulling the past and making the myth that has come to replace it the only thing to hold on to—the mirage come to replace the desert.
Where I Was From, with its astringencies of argument, its stubborn refusal to respond to the glamorous and giddy illusions California has spawned for itself, is a deeply melancholy book, perhaps the most joyless of Didion's career. Even the prose seems tamped-down. Mostly, it lacks the blood-barbed wit, the icy drop-dead irony, the long sentences sinuous as the snakes that reliably pop up in her work as reminders of the dread possibly lurking under every rock. It's not a wicked read, as Play It As It Lays is, nor does she give us the pleasure of hating a villain that her last collection of essays (Political Fictions, mostly on horrible Republicans) provides. Where I Was From is a final reckoning with one part of Didion's past, but its sadness isn't the sadness of one who mourns a lost past—not the sadness of nostalgia—but of whatever replaces nostalgia in the heart of a writer who now firmly believes that the golden age of her youth was never golden, that it was illusion and lies from the start.
Where I Was From by Joan Didion; Alfred K. Knopf. Hardcover, 226 pages, $23.