BOOKS / Freewheeling down the decades: Natasha Walter looks at Joan Didion's personal pictures taken on journeys through Sixties, Seventies and Eighties America

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JOAN DIDION is both a deeply impressive and a deeply irritating writer. Collections of her journalism may not show the full range of her talents - she is also a novelist and a screenwriter - but they show the range of her stylistic tics. Didion overstates, she personalises, she mythologises, she digresses and repeats and stops - just when it gets interesting. But in these three volumes - Sentimental Journeys, a new collection of writings about the Eighties; The White Album, on the Seventies; and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Sixties collection that many journalists of a certain age will tell you was their great inspiration, the bedrock of their own ambition - Didion also enthralls. Allow for cross-Atlantic exaggeration and you can see why she has been called America's 'quintessential essayist'.

Although the collections are made up of pieces originally published in newspapers and magazines, they are unlike most writing that passes for journalism. One reason for that is Didion's cool disregard for the present moment. She has a trick of seeming to write with hindsight, even about contemporary events - especially in the Sixties and Seventies, when most writers overused the present tense, while she developed circumlocutions like: 'Even now I can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this', or: 'I think that they will perhaps not understand what I am going to remember.'

Her attachment to these over-the-shoulder glances makes Didion quite immune to the glamour of immediacy that so much goodish journalism is corrupted by. She doesn't fret if she doesn't get the story, but weaves that failure into a longer narrative - of her desire for the story, our desire for the story, the different stories there could be.

One perfect example is her brief description of going to a Doors recording in 1968. Jim Morrison doesn't turn up, and Didion reflects: 'My leg had gone to sleep, but I did not stand up; unspecific tensions seemed to be rendering everyone in the room catatonic.' When Morrison eventually arrives, Didion notes with the innocence of an outsider: 'The curious aspect of Morrison's arrival was this: no one acknowledged it . . . An hour or so passed, and still no one had spoken to Morrison.'

She finishes the piece on a note of similarly languorous indifference: 'It would be some weeks before the Doors finished recording this album. I did not see it through.' Nothing could be a clearer insight into the eccentric rhythms of that world; and by not forcing them into any other, more easily written pattern, Didion captures them alive.

Just as Didion does not ask her subjects to act up for her, but photographs them as they are, she also records the ebb and flow of her own reactions, never asking of herself what she will not ask of others: disappearance into the expectations of the story. In her masterpiece, 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem', her utter disapproval of the alternative lifestyle as it was lived in San Francisco in 1967 comes over pure: her rage at the women who believe salvation lies in baking bread; the five-year-olds on acid and 13-year-old runaways who feel that making plans is ethically wrong. Moral despair has a quite different timbre from outrage or exploitation, and its true note, sounded here, makes the essay sing like great fiction rather than journalism.

But Didion's stance as a loner and a freewheeler also leads her into less convincing attitudes. She likes to mist over the world, to frame it in her own nostalgia, and there can be something dishonest and self-deluding about this Scott Fitzgeraldian pose. So when she goes to Newport she muses: 'Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadows of migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?' Fair enough, if fey enough, but she can even be poetically regretful about the deserted prison, Alcatraz: 'I struck a few notes on an upright piano with the ivory all rotted from the keys and I tried to imagine the prison as it had been, with the big lights playing over the windows all night long and the guards patrolling the gun galleries . . .'; or California, where a boom mentality and 'a sense of Chekhovian loss' meet in uneasy suspension, or New York, since 'I was very young in New York, and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more . . .'

All these wishy, crepuscular musings are brushed with total sincerity, but that doesn't necessarily help. In fact, for a while, Didion's sincerity was her greatest enemy - when she became, in the late Sixties, the ultimate American drinking partner, who tells you at length that 'I still could not walk on upper Madison Avenue in the mornings and still could not talk to people and still cried in Chinese laundries'. One great charm of the new volume, Sentimental Journeys, is that a lot of this desperate self-revelation has gone, together with the nostalgic epiphanies and the Chekhovian loss. But a lot of the fire has gone as well, and it is quite clear that Didion was not as excited or as unhappy at any point in the Eighties as she often was in the Sixties.

There are still solid pleasures to be gained from Sentimental Journeys. Didion still resists the well-known thrills of straight reportage in search of the unexpectedly personal picture, sometimes drab, sometimes poignant, as is especially evidenced when she goes on the presidential campaign trail in 1988. At one point in the campaign Dukakis is inveigled into believing that his image requires an outdoorsy fillip, and sets up a photo-opportunity called 'tarmac arrival with ball tossing'.

Didion describes the event with full attention to its dully contrived aura: 'Baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the travelling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention . . . some 40 adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.' But then she goes on to examine, report by embarrassing report, just how far the other journalists went against the grain to pretend it was a 'story'; an event that proffered insight into the toughness and jolliness of the candidate. 'What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a set-up and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too 'naive' to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.'

This is the voice we cannot afford to lose, in some ways less obviously despairing but generally more disheartening than the Sixties voice. When Didion writes about the Central Park jogger murder, she chooses to remember the other murders that were forgotten that year in Manhattan because they did not fit into New York's myth of itself. Almost alone among the journalists that dealt with that bizarre episode, Didion walks straight into the maze of the black community's reaction to the trial; the mixtures of rational suspicions and irrational claims; a tinderbox of true and false grievances. Didion looks straight into a place where most of us have a blind spot, and it is that quality, so easy to praise, so difficult to imitate, that transmutes her writings into valuable, as well as sentimental, journeys.

'Sentimental Journeys', HarperCollins pounds 15; 'The White Album' and 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem', HarperCollins pounds 6.99.