Where I Was From: a memoir by Joan Didion

Elegant elegies from the end of the Californian dream
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Elena McMahon, the heroine of Joan Didion's 1996 novel The Last Thing He Wanted, found herself in 1984 at a deserted Costa Rican airport, accompanying a shipment of land mines: a delivery arranged by false companies, with false manifests, furthering the covert movement of weapons into Nicaragua later summed up as the Iran-Contra scandal. She was wearing sunglasses and a black silk shift bought (she recalled) off a sale rack at Bergdorf Goodman while covering the New York primary.

The attention to the detail of dress is pure Didion, and it reminds me of another innocent, arriving in New York aged 20, described in her essay "Good-bye to All That": "I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already..." Didion's belief that what you wear matters has never been stronger. The "pale green organdy dress" she wore in Eighth Grade matters as much in this new memoir as the talk she proudly gave on "Our California Heritage".

Pale-green organdy dresses and black silk shifts from Bergdorfs have served Didion well. They leave useful blue water between herself and feminist critics who seem largely immune to the work of a writer beset by migraines triggered by the decorator having pleated Didion's dining-room curtains - instead of gathering them.

In Where I Was From, there is a world of remembered distinctions, and an examination of the self-deceptions integral to the idea of the "California dream". In the Didion household, it mattered whether silver was polished or left darkened and thick with patina. Unpolished silver was the preferred look in "old" California families.

Little of this will be unfamiliar to readers of Didion's essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). Her note of sadness was for a glowing, lost California, submerged in the boom mentality and sold out by hustlers making a killing in real estate. Proudly reminding us that her family had lived in the state for six generations, Didion became something of a national expert on California life.

Didion respected the old California values of personal independence, and believed in the redemptive experience which brought Americans to the end of their continent. In 1964, she voted for Barry Goldwater, and described herself as a libertarian Republican.

Since the 1980s, Didion has become increasingly political: something blamed on New York, where she has lived for several decades. Reportage on Salvador and the Cuban exiles in Miami, a cunning political thriller, The Last Thing He Wanted, and two volumes of political essays explain why Didion no longer sees California with the same golden nostalgia.

Her severe interrogation of the language and lies of Reagan- and Clinton-era politicians has sharpened her weapons of dissection in Where I Was From. There is little of particular originality in Didion's description of cruelly-deceived aerospace workers in Los Angeles who bought into the American dream, the extreme artificiality of the created environment, the widespread scorn for centralised government and the vast public subsidies that created California agribusiness. But, for her, it's all personal.

The occasion of this memoir was her mother's death in 2001, when "I found myself thinking a good deal about the confusions and contradictions of California life". Where I Was From helps us to connect the elegant Joan Didion on the dustjacket - wearing an outsized straw hat, large sunglasses, and an elegant flower-print linen jacket over a matching skirt and halter-top - with the poised little girl, wearing that "pale green organdy dress" as she addresses her Eighth Grade class on her "California Heritage".

Eric Homberger's cultural companion to New York City is published by Signal Books