Bi-coastal Myths

Bi-coastal Myths

Joan Didion’s Where I Was From and Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts

Where I Was From
by Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 226 pp., $23.00The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts
by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 2003, 158 pp., $19.95


It would be hard to imagine two more different and yet more oddly complementary books about native places than Where I Was From and The Colossus of New York: the first by an esteemed veteran-rural Californian by birth, white, female, a stylist of elegiac precision-and the other by a much-heralded newcomer-an urban New Yorker by birth, black, male, a virtuoso of celebratory riffs. Their titles are true to their books. Didion evokes her mythic childhood paradise of old California only to renounce it; Whitehead alludes to the legendary statue bestriding the harbor at Rhodes in the Mediterranean so that he can depict New York City as a wonder of the modern world.

Where I Was From is a mournful threnody, measuring to the final cost the waste and destruction caused by the edenic myths of California that have defined it throughout its existence and that shaped Didion as a writer early in her career. The Colossus of New York is skeptical celebration, moving through New York in thirteen parts as Whitehead catches the voices of the city in all of their variations and registers. Didion summons a tone of faded elegance to write about the world she has lost; Whitehead seems at times to be channeling Walt Whitman as he catalogues the city. Sometimes all that sustains each book is its author’s voice. Didion’s burden of betrayal and loss would become tedious, and Whitehead’s exuberance would seem unearned, if either were a less gifted writer.

For all of these differences-and there are certainly more than I have suggested in this quick sketch-there is also an implicit conversation going on between Where I Was From and The Colossus of New York. The topic of this conversation, to be blunter and less evocative than either Didion or Whitehead would be, is how the politics of a place get shaped by the myths of its people. When, as here, the places in question have defined this country for at least several generations, then that conversation matters. The necessary qualification to make from the start, though, is that both Didion and Whitehead are ambivalent about these myths of place. Didion destroys any nostalgia a reader might have for the California where she was from, even the nostalgia of those who know the place only through her writing. Whitehead is far too cool, far too downtown, to have any interest in “I Love New York” T-shirts, Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” or grandiose, self-congratulatory memorial designs for Ground Zero. Each keeps some distance from the place, but neither can stop writing about it.

Didion remembers a California settled ...