Sunday, December 05, 2010

After Henry (1992)

With this collection of essays Joan Didion rounds back into form—or, that is, the form by her I most appreciate, personal essays on quirky topics, dispassionately observed and delivered with a hard glitter—very nearly rivaling her best, The White Album. Her interest in U.S. politics starts to come into focus with a few pieces on Washington, D.C., including "Insider Baseball" (which also appears in her next collection, Political Fictions), an interest arriving at just about the time, in the twilight of the Reagan ascendancy, when the right-wing tipped over into fantasist realpolitik and infected the rest of us with all their lunatic bellowing, which we go along with, to our everlasting shame, if they would just shut up once in awhile. Didion refuses to have any of it and seemed to know even then that they never would shut up. She can be positively acid in the details she focuses on, examining the disinclination of American news media to actually report much of significance, noting in 1988 for example that, "American reporters 'like' covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music[...]), which is one reason why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported." Most of the essays focus on California life, looking at Patty Hearst, nuclear reactors in a region affected by earthquakes, southern California property values (and the strange culture it enables), Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, murder and mayhem in the picture industry, the fire seasons, and the history and evident purposes of the "Los Angeles Times" (which she argues convincingly for being a uniquely great national paper). Then a final stop in New York, "Sentimental Journeys," a decidedly unsentimental consideration of the Central Park Jogger case (well before it was known that those convicted and imprisoned for it did not do it, which she seems to sense). Her range of subjects, her evident fascination with all of them, and the clearness of vision and scrupulous attention she brings to her language and facts make practically everything here not only utterly engrossing and enlightening but worth visiting and revisiting. She's that good.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

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