Sunday, April 03, 2011

Political Fictions (2001)

Joan Didion's turn to the public sphere, after years of specializing in a kind of insular brooding clockwork essay built out of private obsessions (perfected in The White Album), hardly means we lose the best of her—she's still as precise as ever, as impatient, as outraged, as brittle, as unwilling to suffer nonsense. The only difference in this collection is that she's looking harder than ever at the fools who run the country, the prevaricating slippery politicians from all across the spectrum and the feckless media (the television figures make the biggest buffoons, but nobody gets off scot-free) that enable them. Even with one essay here about the 1988 political season, "Insider Baseball," already published in her last collection of nonfiction, After Henry, there's still plenty here to send you away thrilled and depressed by the realities she uncovers. We're so used to things being the way they are that we often lose sight of just how distorted they actually are. Not Didion, thank God. The gong she keeps banging here is the simple one of our disaffected electorate, never roused even at its most enthusiastic to turn out in numbers much higher than 50%-55% of eligible voters. What could it mean if they did? She asks virtually every reporter, every wise man of politics, every inside player that she meets about this simple fact and none of them have any good answers for it. It's not in their interest to have them, for one thing, an unpleasant fact about which Didion continually tries to raise a commotion, in her quiet iron-willed way. She examines Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of the '90s. Then she sets her sights on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent," she starts her piece, written in 1998, going on to point to Jesse Jackson's quote that Clinton is "nothing but an appetite." And she's basically on his side, as horrified as so many of us were by the Republican overreach of that scandal (certainly a clarifying moment for me). But that's much of the appeal here. Ten years after this book was published things are only worse. Between the covers of it Joan Didion is as clear-sighted as she can be, looking at something as nearly filthy as it can be. The results are unremittingly fascinating, and disheartening, and thrilling.

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


  1. This goes on my summer list. I've had trouble connecting w/ her "private obsessions" in the past but this sounds like a place where our interests might intersect.

    Thinking of her Clinton observation, she has the merciless analytical traits of an entomologist. I remember once a remark she made about the political flakiness of a vague hillbilly stock common to the west coast. Gulp, I thought, that's me!

    Well, and this Clinton remark could be me, too. But, really, was/is provincial adolescent sexuality any more predatory than, uh, more urbane, adolescent sexuality?

  2. Will be interesting to hear what you think! She really seems in form to me with this one.

  3. I like Didion a lot - loved Slouching Towards Bethlehem, though I wasn't quite as enamored of White Album (I'm not familiar with the critical acclaim surrounding the two volumes, but isn't the latter one more highly praised?). I've read Inside Baseball and the anecdote about the snarky media types changing their verdict on the Quayle-Rayburn debate, as if through osmosis, still rings true.

    I've heard that she's basically a moderate Republican rather than the West Coast liberal one might expect. I know she wrote an essay about that somewhere - is that in this book too?

  4. There's a piece she has somewhere -- I believe it might be in After Henry, though not entirely sure -- where she describes herself as more or less an unreconstructed Goldwater Republican. To me, it's just more evidence of the grotesque lurch to the right we are all still suffering through that a Goldwater Republican now looks for all the world like "the left."

    Between Slouching and White Album my sense has always been that the former is more favored by critics, but I might have that wrong. My own experience going through her stuff again recently has been that Slouching presented me with a lot of difficulty in connecting with it, whereas The White Album seemed more remarkable to me than it ever had, particularly in the way that it rambles almost intuitively within its individual pieces, assembling its fragments into strange "essays" that retain their fragmentary nature even as she somehow makes them cohere. Just really impressed me.