It is a very pleasing thing to find that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.
On second thoughts, maybe it’s not at all surprising that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.
After all, for all the fist-fights, heavy drinking and multiple wives of your Ernest Hemingways, and Norman Mailer types, there are probably just as many introverted Emily Dickinsons or John Keats – quiet, thoughtful, observant, intuitive souls; scribbling away at beautiful works carefully constructed from a love of words.
When I pulled Joan Didion’s famous collection of essays from the 1960s, The White Album from my bookshelves a few weeks ago, quotes on the back such as ‘Our quintessential essayist’, and the byline, Scintillating reflections on contemporary America, prepared me for sizzling descriptions and analyses of the social and political climate of America in the 1960s.
The essays do range across events like the student uprisings, the Charles Manson murders, the music and the atmosphere of the 1960s, but what I wasn’t prepared for in this book were essays about the LA Operations Centre of CALTRANS (Bureaucrats), about suffering from Migraine, (In Bed), about Mall design (On the Mall), about Glasshouse orchids (Quiet Days in Malibu), and last but by no means least, not one but two essays about dams (Holy Water, and At The Dam). Subjects I did not expect from a collection of scintillating reflections on contemporary America – but I had forgotten that I was reading Didion.
There is certainly what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, perfectionist. “You don’t look like a migraine personality,” a doctor once said to me. “Your hair’s messy. But I suppose you’re a compulsive housekeeper.”
In one paragraph on a piece about Migraine, Didion has conveyed to me what it was like to be a woman in the 1960s, visiting a doctor, who was most likely male. Simultaneously she also conveys something of what it was, and is, like to be Joan Didion, that is consistent with the picture of her that I’ve built up through all the reading I’ve done of her: someone who always feels less-than-perfect, almost as if she has failed in the roles of woman/wife/mother/human being. She immediately goes on to reveal more about herself:
Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.
These little reveals are endearing but it was in her writing about Dams that I really loved her, because she is unable to contain her deep sense of pleasure and awe at the movement of all that water; and it’s her ability to convey her – some might say nerdy – obsession that allows us to also be moved by the technical prowess and the poetic majesty contained in the movement of these huge bodies of water.
Perhaps it’s the mark of a great writer, that even when writing about something as specific and discrete as the Hoover Dam, her essay displays that famous ability to expose things about herself as well as capture the time, and the psychological and physical environment around her with extraordinary clarity. Here is the opening to her piece about visiting the Hoover dam in 1967, (written in 1970), entitled At The Dam.
Since the afternoon of 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or in New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rust and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds or thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon(…….) Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free.
This is a short piece, only three pages long, but in that space, Didion describes walking beneath the operation centre of the dam where visitors do not generally go.
…on the whole we spent the afternoon in a world so alien, so complete and so beautiful unto itself that it was scarcely necessary to speak at all. We saw almost no one. Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed….
She ends that piece by imagining the dam existing long after human beings have died out,
….a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world there no one is.
Didion clearly fostered a love of dams, because another essay in the collection, Holy Water, written in 1977, describes a visit to the Operations Centre for the California State Water Project. Again, the piece begins by revealing her own fascination with water, or more specifically, as she explains in this piece, her fascination with the movement of water.
The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps(…..) As it happens, my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movements of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale. I know the data on water projects I will never see (….) I can put myself to sleep imagining the water dropping a thousand feet into the turbines at Churchill Falls in Labrador.
She describes in detail the logistics of water movement around California – agencies call the Operations Centre headquarters by 9am to tell dispatchers how much water is needed by its local water contractors, a schedule is made, and the gates are opened and closed according to the schedule. Walking through the Operations Centre headquarters, she notices a reference in the communications log to Draining Quail, a reservoir in Los Angeles with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons.
I knew at that moment I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself.
The idea of this diminutive writer draining Quail myself strikes me as funny, but while I’m smiling, in those six words she has conveyed to me the strength of her passion for the topic, as keenly as if she’d slapped me around the face.
One of the strengths in her writing, it seems to me, comes from those glimpses of her own fascinations, obsessions, and flaws, as she tells a story. I’ve read other essays and books by Didion and throughout them all I put together my own impression of her personality: I imagine a very clever and quick witted, reserved, serious, careful, analytical, possibly nervous, or nervy, person. Capable of taking obsessive interest in things others might think “nerdy” – such as the movement of water. She is not a humorist, and does not write a piece like Holy Water primarily in order to be funny, but occasionally uses self-deprecating humour at her own obsessions or weaknesses very effectively, to convey that passion, or, on other occasions, that sense of vulnerability. Another example: right after the startling revelation – to herself as well as to the reader – that she wanted to drain Quail herself, Didion open the next paragraph with,
Not many people I know carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries, even when I stress that these deliveries affect their lives, indirectly, every day.
Here’s her final, climactic paragraph from the essay, Holy Water.
If I had wanted to drain Quail at 10:15 that morning, I wanted, by early afternoon, to do a great deal more. I wanted to open and close the Clifton Court Forebay intake gate. I wanted to produce some power down at the San Luis Dam. I wanted to pick a pool at random on the Aqueduct and pull it down and then refill it, watching for the hydraulic jump.(….)
I stayed as long as I could and watched the system work on the big board with the lighted checkpoints. The Delta salinity report was coming in on one of the teletypes behind me. The Delta tidal report was coming in on another. The earthquake board, which has been desensitized to sound its alarm…only for those earthquakes which register at least 3.0 on the Richter Scale, was silent. I had no further business in the room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still.
All quotes above taken from The White Album, Penguin Books, 1981