The idea of California as less a state than a collection of mythologies has long been a central preoccupation of writer Joan Didion. In her early essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Didion brought the personal narrative conventions of the "New Journalism" to bear upon such subjects as the San Francisco counterculture, the small-town Sacramento of her youth, and the atmosphere of cultural paranoia in Los Angeles after the Manson murders in 1969.

It wasn't until I first visited Los Angeles myself in 1996 that I realized how much my expectations of that city had been colored by Didion's spare, evocative descriptions: the sunlight in Malibu, the crawl of one-story suburbs, and above all, the feeling of weightlessness and disconnection in driving the freeways, just like protagonist Maria Wyeth experienced in Didion's novel Play It As It Lays.

Over the course of her career, though, Didion's attention has turned away from such atmospheric meditation. While the hypocrisies and ironies of official "systems" have always been recurring tropes in her work, Didion's later work has focused more specifically on these disjunctions in the areas of national politics and entertainment, in essays on such subjects as the Central Park jogger case and the machinations of Democratic and Republican politics. (One volume is simply titled Political Fictions.) Bristling with meticulous analysis, these later essays are nevertheless often ponderous, too much "insider" takes on the news-cycle events that dominate Sunday morning talk programs.

Where I Was From, Didion's newest collection, represents a return to California and the body of themes surrounding it that have animated Didion's work over the years. While these four ...

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