FOR MANY YEARS, I suffered from the romantic delusion that California writers were genetically incapable of straying far from the land that shaped them without losing the elusive quality that made them California writers. Largely this was an aspect of my pride at having been born and raised in California (the only place I lived until my late 20s); or maybe it was simply because, as a young man, I lacked any other sense of identity. I had trouble calling myself a “writer,” since I suffered through a long, rudderless apprenticeship. I was socially maladroit (and still am), and that didn’t seem like much of an “identity.” And professionally, I shuffled from one uninspiring job to another, lacking any commitment to the idea of a “career.” I only desired part-time work to which I felt no obligation, such as pumping gas at a petrol station on Vanowen Street or answering subscriber complaints at the Los Angeles Times.
By contrast, the term “Californian” established a resonance in the back of my mind. California was a land of stray mutts like me, I thought. Out here, the idea of an intellectual or “Ivy League” clerisy wasn’t a thing (outside of, perhaps, Berkeley); and being autodidactic, itinerant, and unemployed among the wide landscape of mountains, croplands, and sun-blistering freeways seemed like a perfectly sensible occupation. (Sure, you could go to Hollywood and “prostitute” yourself, but I couldn’t even imagine succeeding at that.)
Being Californian was the only label I could apply to myself without shame or pretension.
My mother’s family had been born and raised in San Francisco going back several generations; and as a teenager, my father moved to Southern California from Arizona after his parents’ health resort went bust. My dad’s sister Jean (a lover of Los Angeles if ever there was one) acquired a job in group insurance at Desilu Studios, which was eventually subsumed by Paramount. My father met my mother in San Francisco when he was on military leave just before he resigned his Air Force commission as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. And according to family legend, one of my mother’s great-grandfathers had moved his entire house from western Ireland to Santa Rosa in the mid-19th century; later, his children migrated across the Bay to Potrero Hill, where they worked as machinists and department store salesclerks, produced few children, and eventually died out with hardly a sputter.
My favorite part of California has always been the soft green and amber hills and blue-skied beaches of the central coast, from Big Sur down through Santa Barbara, and then east to the Gabilan Mountains and back again. But for a significant part of my life, I succumbed to the southern California extreme of densely suburban, ugly, and strangely all-absorbing Los Angeles; it was certainly alluring during the first times my father took us to visit our Aunt Jean in Hollywood in the early ’60s. As I child, I gazed with awe at the splintering wooden shelves of comic books in the Hollywood and Vine newspaper kiosk, which were far more resplendent than the crude, squeaky wire racks of our Rexall drugstore in San Luis Obispo. In Los Angeles, you didn’t have to go looking for books and comics; they were always emerging from every direction, continuously new, bright, and freshly printed. Glamorous, old-fashioned movie marquees loomed everywhere, and the boulevards were lined with gigantic billboards advertising movie stars and rock albums. We kept encountering people we watched on television — Carl Reiner buying a flashlight at Walgreens, or Robert Stack sitting two rows down from us at a Dodgers game. Once we had cheeseburgers at The Brown Derby and saw Lucille Ball sitting at the next table.
For me, the best part of California has always been the various roads that kept taking me away and back again to the places I hardly knew I left. And almost every long trip was hypnotically beautiful — and I’m not just talking about the obvious, overwhelming beauty of PCH and Big Sur, but even the 101 between the smooth, uneventful, looming Gabilan Mountains and the garlic-laced Salinas Valley, or the 5’s arid ribbon of meaninglessness that, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, swooped me straight up the steep, endless “Grapevine,” challenging every bolt and widget in whatever broken-down, coolant-challenged car I was driving. Or the teeth-rattling I-710 to Long Beach, or the chock-a-block 405 leading down from Sepulveda toward Santa Monica where, if the smog didn’t kill you, the harsh stench of brushfires and overheating tanker trucks just might. And then of course there was the endless parade of suburbs in every direction that all looked the same until someone told you you were in Orange, or Santa Ana, or City of Industry, and the only difference seemed to be a slight alteration in the stickiness, or the quality of heat. A thousand suburbs in search of a city? More like a thousand suburbs in search of the next suburb. And one was always out there waiting to be found.
When you develop a love for the extremes of California, it’s like being in love with too much of a bad thing and too much of a good thing both at once. I always wanted to continue enjoying more of the same or else get far away from it, endlessly pinging back and forth between those radically different landscapes. Large parts of California can feel like being in the redwood wilderness of nowhere without even yourself for company; at other times, it’s like being cast adrift on an ocean of concrete. There were times when I loved California; there were other times when I hated it. But I was never bored with California; and to this day, that remains true.
As a young man, I found California impossible to write about; it seemed to require a perspective that I hadn’t learned from other writers. Mainly this was because I didn’t know many California writers who seemed to be writing about the places and people I had grown up with. I loved Steinbeck and Saroyan, but they had been raised in completely different territories than mine. And while Ray Bradbury gave me occasional flashes of California, he tended to lapse more often into Midwestern dreaming, or Martian sadnesses. The places I knew best seemed cut off from the world of traditional literature that excited me when I was young — from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Richard Yates, Georges Simenon, and J. G. Ballard. Growing up Californian, I felt (however inaccurately) that my particular experience just didn’t make good fiction.
Eventually I discovered, almost entirely by accident, a few books that gave me glimpses of California’s fictional potential. First, there were the remarkable California novels of Brian Moore — Fergus (1970) and The Great Victorian Collection (1975) — which showed me how the techniques the author had developed writing about Northern Ireland, Montreal, and New York could be applied to my home state. The idea that a California resident might meet his mother’s ghost eating an apple in a Malibu kitchen, or discover a manifestation of Victorian artifacts in the parking lot of a Carmel seaside motel, made perfect sense to me, living as I did where people continually believed that all sorts of weird things were “realistic,” such as spaceships coming to take them away to their home planet, or that an aging hack movie star could become governor, do a fucking miserable job, and go on to become president. Most of all, Moore showed me the ways that good clear narrative techniques could tell distinctly California stories, and I spent the entirety of my 20s learning those techniques long before I accidentally met him, and became friends with him, while wandering the halls of the UCLA English Department in the late 1970s.
The other California writer I gravitated to was Joan Didion. (It later surprised me to learn that she, Brian Moore, and his wife Jean were longtime friends.) The one novel of hers that worked for me was Play It as It Lays (1970), in which she took an emotionally disconnected woman’s travels across disconnected landscapes and produced one of my favorite “realistic” L.A. novels. Meanwhile, in her essays written around the same time, Didion charted the philosophical and emotional landscapes I had been navigating all my life: potentially infinite white spaces of possibility that never yielded any possibilities worth exploring. A place where you could be anybody you imagined yourself to be, while failing to imagine anybody worth being.
Didion possessed most of the things I lacked — such as the discipline to follow an idea to its logical (and usually dismaying) conclusion, and enough intellectual focus to work out some of the most intriguing, beautifully sculpted critical paragraphs I have ever read. (She always seemed to me far superior to Sontag.) But the biggest difference was that Didion knew a part of California that existed adjacent to my own — arty Malibu parties, old Sacramento money, and the emerging political class of operatives who weren’t allied to any party or geographical location.
Learning how to write fictions set in California has always seemed to me a perilous occupation, and the narrative techniques that work for us aren’t easily adapted to other places. We lack, for the most part, a sense of communities, or narrative destinations, or even human identity, perhaps because all our cities, suburbs, and people feel so muddled together, and the most story-like life gets is when we follow one endless freeway onto another. California is filled with so many vivid pleasures, smells, textures, and absurdities of human character that it feels difficult, or even impossible, to encapsulate it. At the same time, the conjunctions of strange discordant images and people — like some hyper-postmodern collage — are hard to find anywhere else: pyramids and billboards, palm trees and Joshua trees, deserts and orange groves, Buddhist fundamentalists and warlock-training schools, condos and castles, mountains and oceans, lakes and golden bears, native arrowheads and the buried skeletons of forgotten conquistadors, or even the moldering movie sets of Ancient Rome emerging from the desert sands outside Lompoc.
And once we learn how to write about California, it becomes difficult for us to write about anywhere else.
While reading the new Library of America volume gathering Didion’s mid-career fictions and nonfictions, most of which are set largely outside California, I kept thinking that it must have been a difficult creative period for Didion. She had learned how to write about California. But she had never (and perhaps never would) learn how to write about anywhere else.
Didion’s literary talents did not travel well. Like Aquaman, she couldn’t breathe for very long in elements that weren’t already hers.
Obvious signs of trouble lie in her novels after Play It as It Lays. Most of her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), is set in the invented Central American country of Boca Grande, but Nostromo this ain’t. Like her subsequent novels, it makes ideas about the “truth” of fiction a central concern of the plot — and provokes the reader to continually question who is telling the story about whom and for what reasons. And while Prayer certainly contains many interesting and enjoyable fictional scenes, it never spends much time in territories where Didion feels comfortable.
Didion’s subsequent novels — Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) — describe the heavily contrived adventures of anthropologists and political extremists, CIA ops and their lovers, and a self-enclosed world of Washington, DC, insiders, and never achieve any sense of narratively engaged reality. Instead, Didion encumbers what she doesn’t know with a lot of metafictional blather about a fictional “Joan Didion,” an authorial personality exploring the “truth” of the fiction she’s producing, as well as the inability of us readers to distinguish reality from fiction, and so forth.
Critics have often dismissed Play as a decadent symptom of Angeleno life, with its sad little former prom-queen protagonist suffering addictions to valium, phony lifestyles, and self-centered angst. But the psychologically tenuous Maria Wyeth was the closest Didion ever got to maintaining a strong point of view in a novel. (Even then, she eventually abandoned Maria’s perspective before the novel drifted off to a multi-focal conclusion.) But it was the very emptiness of Maria that perfectly transmitted Southern California’s vast discontinuity. (By contrast, Bret Easton Ellis adopted the main narrative techniques from Play, splashed in lots of grand guignol violence and skimpy critiques of commodity fetishism, and made a career out of it.) But in these later novels, Didion wrote about characters she didn’t know.
Democracy describes a love triangle between the daughter of a Hawaiian colonial aristocrat, a US senator and one-time presidential contender, and a CIA op who was apparently involved in everything from the Saigon airlift to the Bay of Pigs, wrapping them all up in a tendentious metafictional game. The entire novel is presented as a journalistic investigation by someone named Joan Didion, who routinely reflects on issues such as “what do we really know” about people, and aren’t their versions of reality just versions, etc. (It seems to me that when anyone starts writing or reading a novel, they’ve already decided to accept that it is a novel. Otherwise — why bother?) Didion doesn’t seem to know any of these characters, or what they do for a living (outside of attending dinner parties). And on those rare occasions when she pulls off an interesting scene (most of this book simply tells you where lots of different people are going and what they do when they get there), she steps all over it, as in the following in which the central dramatic event — a terrorist bombing in Indonesia — occurs entirely as a memory mixed up with other memories:
The green lawn around the ambassador’s bungalow at Puncak, the gardenia hedges.
The faded chintz slipcovers in the bungalow at Puncak, the English primroses, the tangles of bamboo and orchids in the ravine.
The mists blowing in at Puncak.
Standing with Jack Lovett on the green lawn at Puncak with the mists blowing in over the cracked concrete off the empty swimming pool, over the ravine, over the tangles of bamboo and orchids, over the English primroses.
Standing with Jack Lovett.
Inez remembered that.
Inez also remembered that the only person killed when the grenade exploded in the embassy commissary was an Indonesia driver from the motor pool.
And so on. Where Play managed to take mundane, detachable moments from the life of a mundane, detachable woman and turn them into a sequence of narrative scenes, these later books erode every interesting dramatic moment with endlessly mundane observations, repetitions, elisions, and chronological evasions, and then filter them through uninteresting speculations about “truth” as it is manufactured by a fictional version of Didion: a narrative presence that seems thin, evasive, and deeply unconcerned with anything that happens to her characters. In Democracy, it’s not the protagonists who suffer from a sense of worldly indifference — it’s the author. Who else would describe a violent explosion and a man’s death as an afterthought in a series of memories about primroses, chintz slipcovers, and swimming pools?
Some critics disliked Play for telling the story of a psychologically broken, evasive, indeterminate woman. But Democracy seems to be told by her. Many scenes conclude by reflecting upon the functional inability of human beings to live unburdened by their memories. And the Didion-like narrator often concludes a scene or chapter by telling the reader that it’s time to “[d]rop fuel. Jettison cargo. Eject crew.”
Democracy has its good moments, especially when describing a new, self-fetishizing bureaucratic class of politicians, intelligence operatives, and journalists. But this doesn’t save the novel from not being a novel. Like one of her foremost literary influences, Joseph Conrad, Didion complicates the reader’s relationship to recounted events through a shell game of potentially unreliable (or incompetent) narrators; but while Conrad’s Marlowe often wraps the reader in a web of imperfectly related events, Didion wears out the reader’s patience. Whenever Didion manages to start a fairly interesting dramatic scene — such as when Inez fights with her husband, Senator Harry Victor, during a teaching stint at Berkeley, and he accuses her of suffering “palpable unhappiness” — this leads her to natter on for two paragraphs about how she “recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago” and that “day she had spent alone with Jessie in a borrowed house overlooking Repulse Bay.” But all these fractured, vague reflections lead only to more fractured, vague reflections, with Inez’s central character ultimately reduced to a “capacity for passive detachment.” As a reader, it is hard not to feel pretty detached as well.
Didion befuddles readers with jumpy, distraught paragraphs that keep repeating and reclassifying the same uninteresting information, as at the start of the fifth chapter:
It was Billy Dillon who told Inez.
In the kitchen of the house at Amagansett.
To which he had driven, two hours in the rain on the Long Island Expressway and another hour on the Montauk Highway, flooding in the tunnel first shot out of the barrel and then construction on the L.I.E., no picnic, no day at the races, directly after he took the call from Dick Ziegler.
Dick Ziegler had called the office and tried to reach Harry.
Dick Ziegler was not yet on the scene, Dick Ziegler had been on Guam for two days trying to run an environmental-impact report around the Agana-Mariana Planning Commission.
Janet was not dead.
I’m sorry. I’ll stop. But it’s hard to emphasize what a tiresome book this is without providing a few examples. The book consists almost entirely of lists of vague events enumerating who did what but not always in what order, and at times it feels more like a testimony to clinical depression than a work of fiction. It’s a depressing book. It makes you feel depressed about reading.
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) may actually be worse for all the same reasons. Didion relies on the same meta-narrative gimmicks to expand her slender, poorly constructed story to lengths that might seem complex but are merely portentous and hard to follow. Didion’s a better prose writer than Norman Mailer, but she is a bad novelist for many of the same reasons. She tries to write big stories about people she doesn’t care about; and she sets them in worlds of international politics and conflict that she never wanted to waste time understanding, preferring to keep a nice Hyatt hotel at her back just long enough to earn a good fee from the magazine that sent her on a location assignment. Last Thing begins with a deliberately vague statement: “Some real things have happened lately”; but then Didion fails to bring any of those “real” things to life in the pages that follow — just more whispers of postmodern irony: “There were hints all along, clues we should have registered, processed, sifted for their application to the general condition.” Everything continually dissolves into the Tristram Shandy unravelings of its dismal author:
For the record, this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving fast.
No longer traveling light …
And so on. Every time Didion starts to create an interesting narrative scene, she slips away on this raft of idle, self-important conjecture. The novel never starts. Eventually, I didn’t even want it to anymore.
Didion seems incapable of either representing a foreign political culture, or inventing one, as Robert Stone does, say, in A Flag for Sunrise (1981). Instead, like Mailer, she looks for ways to evade the world’s realities she never glimpsed closer than through the windows of a press-corps bus. And the few successful scenes don’t take place on unnamed Central American battlefields or in the power corridors of Washington, but in places Didion knows well. When the narrator glimpses Elena at an Oscar party in Malibu, she sits alone “idly picking apart a table decoration to remove the miniature Oscar at its center, oblivious to winners and losers alike”; and when the “not quite omniscient author” sits down beside her, she speaks the sort of tendentious sentence that Didion’s characters keep speaking in different uninteresting ways: “I can’t fake this anymore.”
In a world of fakery and cheap illusions, a character like Elena, who turns her back on the golden life, is potentially interesting; but when the author equates Elena’s disillusionment with the world of politics and international arms deals stoked by government-funded spy networks and corporate henchmen, it’s like comparing apples with armaments. The golden life in Malibu offers a stage of interesting human evasions, but for people living in the world where the actual armaments are landing, Malibu is not significant. It’s not even on their radar.
And anyway, they probably could give a fuck about an Oscar party.
Both of these bad and exasperating novels, with their sketchy Central American backgrounds, flow forth from Didion’s worst piece of professional journalism, Salvador (1983), which came together after a less-than-two-week visit through that complicated, embattled country. If I wanted to convince someone to hate Joan Didion (and I wouldn’t want to do that), then I would give them this book. It is filled with some of her characteristically good prose and observations, but it interprets the horror of that civil-war-fractured country as if it’s a Malibu divorce, one in which “both parties” are at fault and “both parties” have done their share of misbehaving.
She repeatedly mentions that “both parties” committed violence but never indicates how much more profound was the violence initiated by the party of Reagan/Bush and their allies. Didion never tries to assign political responsibility for any of the specific atrocities she mentions, from military actions in the “garrison town” of San Francisco Gotera to the murder of Cardinal Óscar Romero by a right-wing death squad; and even when she concedes that “government forces do most of the killing,” her descriptions are oddly dissociated from specifics, depicting Salvadoran violence as a primal, Boschian nightmare that wells up from some vast human unconscious, much like the anomie and despair of Didion’s Malibu-centric movie actresses and Darvon poppers. She often describes anonymous “bodies” that are “broken into unnatural positions, and the faces to which the bodies are attached (when they are attached) are equally unnatural.” And she assembles a lot of colorful information that a typical “visitor” to El Salvador might acquire during their trip, such as the ways in which vultures feast on corpses, or how some bodies have been “stuffed with something emblematic; stuffed, say, with a penis, or, if the point has to do with land title, stuffed with some of the dirt in question.” The entire book reminds me of one of her least successful (and strangely most well-regarded) essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1967), when she goes in search of the dark underside of Bay Area youth culture and never strays far enough from her car to talk to anybody who knows what’s actually going on.
Didion reflects vaguely that there are no “issues” in the war, “only ambitions” — as she quotes one “high-placed Salvadoran” telling her — or that the only “solutions” to a long-standing conflict over land and power (which the powerless, as usual, keep losing) are “mainly somewhere else, in Mexico or Panama or Washington.” But then she spends no time at all explaining (or trying to understand) how those foreign-devised “solutions” may have gotten the country into this mess in the first place. Everything is vagueness and abstraction. Didion never witnesses the conflict itself, only its hazy aftermath; and while she repeatedly suggests that the proposed solutions are empty rhetoric, she never speaks to anybody who might offer less rhetorical solutions. Whenever she comes close to actually observing something, it is almost always a matter of style — such as the “local woman” who leaves behind a “trace” of Arpège after sharing a taxi. And after spending only two weeks in the country, she expresses a desire to “get out of San Salvador,” with its “ambiguous tension, its overcast, its mood of wary somnambulism.” All these vaguenesses and evasions just keep reminding the reader that Didion has no clue what’s happening in this country she hasn’t explored so much as touristed, or what the people in it feel about what’s happening. Only Didion can spend days trying to cross impassable roads to the site of recent violence and, once she gets there, spend most of her time focused on her private sense of anomie. (“We stood in the sun and tried to avoid adverse attention. We drank Coca-Cola and made surreptitious notes…”)
But then, the entirety of Salvador is about taking a long time getting to places in order to forget why one went there in the first place.
The most Didionesque evasion of journalistic responsibility occurs when she has dinner with the grandson of General Martínez, one of the figureheads whom Gabriel García Márquez reportedly based the protagonist of his 1975 novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch. Didion identifies Martínez as “obvious material” when they meet, but feels no “professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread.” She reports him calling the murdered Archbishop Romero a “real bigot” who sounded, in his Sunday radio sermons, like “Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini.” But while Didion reflects that one of “the most active death squads” in El Salvador was named after Martínez’s grandfather, she confesses that she felt no compunction to ask “the grandson about that.” It is peculiar to read a journalist who derides journalists marching around dutifully in their proscribed little communities and then hear her admit that, confronted by an actual story, she feels only “dread” about asking pertinent questions.
It’s as if she views the horrors of a country in continuous civil war as a matter of behaving properly at dinner parties; she doesn’t want to embarrass everyone by calling out the host for his affinities with state-sponsored terrorists. After dinner with Martínez’s grandson, she visits a street market and is disgusted by “the dirt, the blazing sun, the pervasive smell of rotting meat, the absence of even the most rudimentary skill in the handicrafts on exhibit (there were sewn items, for example, but they were sewn by machine of sleazy fabric, and the simplest seams were crooked).” Didion doesn’t approach, or speak with, a single vendor, in order to understand why they are limited to “sleazy fabric.” In fact, the only working-class Salvadoran person she spends any time with is way back in Los Angeles before she embarks on her “investigative” journey — an unnamed “Salvadoran woman,” employed by Didion (possibly as a maid or cook), who warns her about Salvador’s pervasive violence, especially against the sort of people who find safety in churches, or sell unsavory, crooked-seamed handicrafts to contemptuous tourists at the market.
The closest Didion gets to describing Salvadoran political reality occurs during a luncheon party at the US Ambassador’s House:
The wine was chilled and poured into crystal glasses. The fish was served on porcelain plates that bore the American eagle. The sheep dog and the crystal and the American eagle together had on me a certain anesthetic effect, temporarily deadening that receptivity to the sinister that afflicts everyone in Salvador, and I experienced for a moment the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country.
It’s the best Didion can manage with the difficult subject of Salvador: describing how the food is served to people who try to believe in the illusion of American “plausibility” — by which she means the American presumption of supporting democratic interests in countries where they want to make money, or secure military power. But she does this without ever venturing out among the “implausible” people who suffer from the cruelty, greed, and stupidity of the likes of Elliott Abrams, Ronald Reagan, and Oliver North.
Didion examines (perhaps just glances over) the brutalities of American interventionism in Salvador as a rhetorical “game.” Didion uses the subject of “rhetoric” almost like an evasion of reality — much like the laziest of our television commentators who often dwell on how political events or arguments are “perceived” by the public rather than exploring the actual events themselves. She discusses how “‘anti-communism’ was seen, correctly, as the bait the United States would always take,” and has nothing to say about the actual bait — money, property, economic interests, military bases. As she develops this spurious argument, she claims America has been lured “by a misapprehension of the local rhetoric and by the manipulation of our own rhetorical weaknesses, into a game we did not understand, a play of power in a political tropic alien to us. […] In this light all arguments tended to trail off.” Throughout Salvador (and her nearly as bad fourth and fifth novels), Didion never sees beyond these “rhetorical” battles to the suffering human beings being tortured and murdered by American allies and American weapons.
Didion carries her belief in the “metaphysical” nature of California reality everywhere she goes, like Linus’s security blanket. And as a result of her systematic failure to see beyond the world that raised her, or to give up the talent-numbing routines of writing and doctoring mediocre Hollywood movies, she almost wasted the two decades of literary production contained in this new LOA volume. But what ultimately saved Didion from herself was, remarkably, the Reagans — that awful couple who took many of Didion’s own perceptual failures to Washington along with their fleets of California political hacks. Didion’s cold-blooded examinations of how these two Hollywood phonies and their accomplices turned Washington, DC, into an adjunct dining hall of the “California Club” are the best part of this otherwise exasperating volume. In fact, if it weren’t for her third collection of essays, After Henry (1992), this volume might not be worth reading at all.
Nobody writes better about self-interest than Didion. In the title essay, recounting the sudden death of her young editor at Simon & Schuster, Henry Robbins, she makes clear that nobody is more selfish in their misery than a selfish writer. This brief, moving essay is almost a prelude to her later memoirs about losing everything, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011). “I believed,” she writes,
that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see. I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong. I had failed to imagine, I had not understood. Here was the way it was going to be; I would be around for Henry’s funeral, but he was not going to be around for mine.
This period charts Didion’s failure to imagine a way into lives that aren’t hers, into places that aren’t California; but when she does find a space to explore her private perceptions of the world, she blossoms. Her pieces on the Reagans in Washington, like her earlier essay on the unlivable governor’s mansion in Sacramento, translate the open conspiracies of California into the national vernacular; and her reflections on the “California Club mentality” make human sense of the Reagans and their terrible dislocation from the world they blithely trampled over in Nancy’s tiny matching shoes and Ron’s affected cowboy boots.
The secret of these Californians is that they belonged to a privileged class who refused to believe in the notion of class — making a continuous show of their solitary, faux-rugged individualness, while lacking the literary or logical skills to explain that sense of self-worth to anybody outside their own head. When such Californians betray their humanity, the vision is both ugly and sad. As Didion writes, Nancy Reagan’s “most endearing quality was this little girl’s fear of being left out, of not having the best friends and not going to the parties at the biggest houses. She collected slights. She took refuge in a kind of piss-elegance, a fanciness […] in using words like ‘inappropriate.’”
In her cloistered, well-regulated adventures through El Salvador (and, later, Miami), Didion misapplied California schemes of social authenticity to places they didn’t fit; but in these much better essays, she never misses a beat when it comes to reading the pretensions that “real” Californians such as her feel about “faux” Californians like the Reagans and their dinner companions, Michael Deaver, the Bloomingdales, the whole sick crew. As she notes in her bitterest prose in the entire volume: “What these men represented was not ‘the West’ but what was for this century a relatively new kind of monied class in America, a group devoid of social responsibilities precisely because their ties to any one place had been so attenuated.” These were the sorts of people who would move to a place like California to enjoy the wide-open spaces and then lock themselves away in gated communities; and when they left California for Washington, they took their detached sensibilities, and a hyper-awareness of social graces, with them.
Didion sharply depicts the development of a government elite growing increasingly divorced from responsibility to the people who elected them, and to anyone who exists outside their well-fed class of “insiders” (a class to which Didion herself intimately belongs). Ultimately, the Reagans saved Didion from crashing and burning in her worst creative years. For Didion was the first to recognize that Ron and Nancy represented a new type of American: untalented, interconnected, and self-enamored “insiders” who weren’t Californians so much as the sort of people who ended up in California, where they liked the weather and the movie-business money, the Humvees and the private jets. They arrived in California with a deep sense of isolation from human life and took that soullessness with them to Washington to inflict it on the country.
What Didion senses better than most of the other “new journalists” is that, during the two decades chronicled in this volume, American politics began lifting off the ground like a self-inflating balloon, growing increasingly distant and elevated through a hot-air-generating machinery of abstract language, social presumption, and rhetorical games. (The mistake Didion makes is to apply this abstract system to the non-rhetorical, and desperately real, realities of the geographical spaces America was trying to control.) Again and again, she writes about a “professional elite” who run all regions of the political system — the Hollywood film industry, the Reagan White House, the Los Angeles mayor’s office. This elite seems more like the children of Reagan than Californians: “people who spoke of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns,” who established a system of governance focused on “process” rather than justice, controlled by “process operators” much like the creatures who tend the machines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. They know not what they do or why; they only know how to keep the machine functioning, which keeps them well fed enough to, you know … keep the machine functioning.
“When we talk about the process,” Didion continues,
then we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisors, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.
When Didion writes about this self-regarding, self-policing class of people, she clearly knows them as well as she knows herself — people who obediently allow themselves to be transported by bus to the next story on which they are permitted to have opinions; people who won’t ask awkward questions of people who might answer them. Didion clearly understands her complicity in this system. But she won’t stray far enough from the press bus to see outside it.
The essays collected in After Henry — whether they concern the sad comeuppance of a California heiress like Patty Hearst in “Girl of the Golden West” (1982), or the popular media’s mythologizing of a female jogger’s broken nobility in “Sentimental Journeys” (1991) — are welcome reminders that Didion wasn’t entirely asleep during the ’80s and ’90s; she was just spending too many of those years keeping her eyes wide shut. Or perhaps she was watching some of the terrible, or just mediocre, movies — such as A Star Is Born (1976) or Up Close & Personal (1996) — that she preferred to write rather than the good novels she obviously still had in her.
I look forward to volume three of the LOA set, in which Didion gets back to writing about what she writes about most beautifully — herself. When she strays from that subject, she gets into a world of trouble.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017), and The Millennial’s Guide to Death: Stories (2021).