by Joan Didion
A review by David L. Ulin
Not long after Joan Didion left southern California for New York, a Los Angeles writer compared her to a cut flower, severed from her roots. At the time, I thought that was just bitterness talking, but now I'm not so sure. In the thirteen years since Didion moved to Manhattan, her work has become flat, almost indifferent, disconnected from the world. The best essays in her collection After Henry (1992) are those dealing with Los Angeles; her novel The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is as blank and mannered as a polished stone. It's as if Didion on the East Coast has retreated to a strangely insular landscape, devoid of interaction with daily life. Surely that's the case with Political Fictions, her fourth volume of essays, which, even while criticizing the American political process as "perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent," never overcomes its own profound disengagement.
There's a certain irony to this, and not just because Didion's remoteness mirrors the process she writes about. After all, Didion's main strength as a writer has always been her aloofness, her ability to stand back and comment on what she sees. In her best work — the essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), and the full-length nonfiction efforts Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987) — it is tempered by a participatory edge. Here participation tends to go by the wayside, replaced by a fuzzy ruminative quality most notable for its lack of nuance. American politics, Didion declares, is an industry, incestuous and self-involved. The issues that compel us are in no way organic but, rather, manufactured hot buttons, meant to mobilize an increasingly narrow range of swing voters, on whom electoral outcomes rely. Though it's difficult to deny the accuracy of such observations, they're hardly eye-opening in the manner Didion intends. Yet throughout Political Fictions she returns to these commonplaces as if they were revelations by which our understanding of politics might be transformed.
None of that might be so bad were there more reporting in these pages, more perspectives for Didion to navigate. The key failure of Political Fictions, though, is that except for "Insider Baseball" (which already appeared in After Henry) and "Eyes on the Prize," a deftly layered account of the 1992 Democratic Convention, it features virtually no reporting. Instead most of the essays function as extended book reviews, with Didion reacting to her material from the safety of a reader's chair. In "Newt Gingrich, Superstar" she laments the former speaker's influence through the filter of his books as opposed to his programs; in "Clinton Agonistes" she writes not of the journalistic frenzy that accompanied the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but of how that frenzy was interpreted in, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review. If this were a starting point, a way of mapping out the territory, it could be useful — "History is context," Didion writes in "The West Wing of Oz." But in the end Political Fictions offers not history but historiography, which is a secondhand process at best.
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