In the Islands

We are leaving for a week’s vacation in Hawaii tomorrow (in fact, I should probably be packing instead of blogging.) Last night, while choosing which books to take with me, I ended up pulling out Joan Didion’s essay “In The Islands,” which was published in her collection The White Album. The opening paragraph reads:

1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected. In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.

The bulletin, when it comes, is a distinct anticlimax: Midway reports no unusual wave action. My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.

Isn’t this the best of Didion, and the worst? The precise adjectives, the varied syntax, the parallel between natural and personal calamity–any writer would envy her those qualities. (I know I do.) And yet, the paragraph also has the worst of her, doesn’t it? Did you really need to know that she stays in a “high-ceilinged room” at the expensive Royal Hawaiian Hotel? The best and worst compete with each other for the rest of the essay, and yet of course I felt compelled to finish it, and read the best sentences out loud to my husband.