The Books: After Henry, ‘Pacific Distances’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another essay from After Henry, by Joan Didion.

‘Pacific Distances’ is the second essay in the “California” section of About Henry and it is a monster. It has six separate distinct parts, each with a different theme and story. They probably started as stand-alone essays and then Didion felt the connecting thread and put them all together. The date at the end of the essay is eloquent: 1979 – 1991. It’s not a montage, but an Anthology. The title says it all. The essay moves from Los Angeles to Hawaii to Hong Kong. Part 1 has to do with driving in Los Angeles, those “tranced hours”, in Didion’s awesome phrase. The second part is a total shift, and is a memoir-type piece about her early years as a writer and a journalist. But the second part is really about Didion, a California girl, born and raised, trying to understand and shuffle off the legacies of her own past, and forge into something new. Not easy for anyone, but (she suggests) particularly challenging for Californians. The third part of the essay describes Didion’s visit to Etcheverry Hall at the University of Berkeley, home to a nuclear reactor. The fourth part involves Didion’s visit to the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to see Shiva, the twenty-beam laser they had there at the lab. The fourth part takes us to Honolulu, a huge part of Didion’s life, and it’s an essay about real estate (one of Didion’s ongoing obsessions). And the final part of this gigantic essay describes Didion’s visit to Kai Tak East, the Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong.

I can think of few writers, writing now or ever, who can blend the personal memoir with political or economic or scientific journalism the way Didion does, without making it seem All About Her. I realize her critics disagree with me, but I disagree with them, so we’re even. She is not so much about personal revelation as she is about making connections, and she does so in a way that is elegant and somewhat emotionless. Her voice always remains clear and calm, even when it tips into the elegiac. (This is not the case in Blue Nights, her most recent book. The calm is somewhat gone, and it is shattering to read.) I would compare her to Mark Twain, whose journalistic stuff is so much about “Here is what I saw today”. Twain does not so much employ the objective omniscient voice, and neither does Didion, although there is great authority in their telling of the narrative. Twain’s Innocents Abroad is both a fantastic piece of journalism as well as a travelogue, as well as a political and cultural investigation. But always seem through Twain’s biased somewhat jaundiced eye. Didion isn’t as funny as Twain (there is humor in her writing, but it’s quite cerebral), but you never forget that it is SHE who is our guide, SHE who is leading us from Honolulu to Hong Kong. But these are not memoir pieces. They are opportunities to talk about issues that obsess Didion: California, the freeway system, writing, politics, class , science, American innovation. Some of her pieces are more straight journalism, but her voice is still undeniable. Christopher Hitchens comes to mind. (I am reading Hitch 22 right now, so I’ve got Hitch on the brain. Well. I’ve always got Hitch on the brain.)

I will excerpt today from the third section in this massive piece of writing, describing her visit to Etcheverry Hall and the nuclear reactor. She meets the technicians, they give her a tour, they describe how things work, they say it is all quite safe. The reactor lies only 40 yards west of the Hayward Fault. In taking the tour, she remembers her youth growing up in the “atomic age”. So I am going to excerpt the section where she does go into memoir. Didion is great at both, reportage and memoir. I can’t choose which I like best, or which I prefer.

But I love her remembrance of growing up knowing, believing, that one day you may see that flash of blinding white light. Listen to this: “this blinding white light that meant death, this seductive reversal of the usual associations around ‘light’ and ‘white’ and ‘radiance'” … “this seductive reversal”. So good.

I grew up in the tail end of that. We had drills. I remember The Day After and what an event that was. I grew up while the Cold War was still raging (although losing steam with every second – but that was unbeknownst to me. I didn’t know how things were crumbling. As far as I was concerned, a child, the Russians were out to get me. The Miracle on Ice is a vivid memory to me. I was fully a part of that Cold War mindset. I was born into it.) So I love her words here.

After Henry, ‘Pacific Distances’, by Joan Didion

I was ten years old when “the atomic age”, as we called it then, came forcibly to the world’s attention. At the time the verbs favored for use with “the atomic age” were “dawned” or “ushered in”, both of which implied an upward trend to events. I recall being told that the device which ended World War II was “the size of a lemon” (this was not true) and that the University of California had helped build it (this was true). I recall listening all one Sunday afternoon to a special radio report called “The Quick and the Dead”, three or four hours during which the people who had built and witnessed the bomb talked about the bomb’s and (by extension) their own eerie and apparently unprecedented power, their abrupt elevation to that place from whence they had come to judge the quick and the dead, and I also recall, when summer was over and school started again, being taught to cover my eyes and my brain stem and crouch beneath my desk during atomic-bomb drills.

So unequivocal were these impressions that it never occurred to me that I would not sooner or later – most probably sooner, certainly before I ever grew up or got married or went to college – endure the moment of its happening: first the blinding white light, which appeared in my imagination as a negative photographic image, then the waves of heat, the sound, and, finally, death, instant or prolonged, depending inflexibly on where one was caught in the scale of concentric circles we all imagined pulsing out from ground zero. Some years later, when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley and had an apartment in an old shingled house a few doors from where Etcheverry now stands, I could look up the hill at night and see the lights at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, at what was then called “the real lab”, at the cyclotron and the Bevatron, and I still expected to wake up one night and see those lights in negative, still expected the blinding white light, the heat wave, the logical conclusion.

After I graduated I moved to New York, and after some months or a year I realized that I was no longer anticipating the blinding flash, and that the expectation had probably been one of those ways in which children deal with mortality, learn to juggle the idea that life will end as surely as it began, to perform in the face of definite annihilation. And yet I know that for me, and I suspect that for many of us, this single image – this blinding white light that meant death, this seductive reversal of the usual associations around “light” and “white” and “radiance” – became a metaphor that to some extent determined what I later thought and did. In my Modern Library copy of The Education of Henry Adams, a book I first read and scored at Berkeley in 1954, I see this passage, about the 1900 Paris Great Exposition, underlined:

… to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.

It had been, at the time I saw the TRIGA Mark III reactor in the basement of Etcheverry Hall, seventy-nine years since Henry Adams went to Paris to study Science as he had studied Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. It had been thirty-four years since Robert Oppenheimer saw the white light at Alamogordo. The “nuclear issue”, as we called it, suggesting that the course of the world since the Industrial Revolution was provisional, open to revision, up for a vote, had been under discussion all those years, and yet something about the fact of the reactor still resisted interpretation: the intense blue in the pool water, the Cerenkov radiation around the fuel rods, the blue past all blue, the blue like light itself, the blue that is actually a shock wave in the water and is the exact blue of the glass at Chartres.

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1 Response to The Books: After Henry, ‘Pacific Distances’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    I tell you, she leaves me breathless.

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