I came to Joan Didion backwards, starting with the ironic and savage essays of Political fictions, and only later by returning through his work. It started in 2001. I was in college. It’s hard to remember now the terrifying political unanimity of that moment, how the deep popular cynicism and indifference of the post-Cold War, post-Clinton scandals evaporated on September 11. to be replaced by a furious national identity card that could not tolerate the slightest deviation from a newly (at least newly opened) national warlike goal. I was 20, an aspiring radical and political leftist, barely recovered from my more problematic teenage banter with tendencies we will later call the Alt-Right or Post-Left. Political fictions, which combined the aristocratic disdain for which Didion was criticized (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) with the sharp precision of observation and description for which she was praised, provided a diagnostic framework through which visualize the great upheavals of the Bush era in continuity with the staged spectacle of American policy which had preceded it. It was also very funny, especially in the chapters on Bob Woodward and Newt Gingrich, a quality that critics and admirers of Didion often underestimate. Surprisingly, this weary, hilarious, and incisive book was first published in America just a week after September 11.
Loving a writer is often a matter of the first chance encounter. I’m very glad it’s mine. I think if I had first met Didion through his famous early works, if a non-fiction creative class had instructed me to read New-Journalistic’s deliberately mannered and consciously-minded essays from Collapse towards Bethlehem and The white album– “all that princess bullshit at the consulate”, a friend of mine, less of a fan than me, called him once – then I would have been extinguished and I would perhaps never have come back. I would have found him precious and authoritative, and I would have found his most famous pieces of self-reflective revelation, the pieces “here on this island in the middle of the Pacific instead of asking for a divorce,” calculated and contrived. I think I would have found it bogus.
Instead, I read the essays in what amounted to reverse chronological order, and so my take on the production of the sixties and seventies was to see an elaboration and redaction of a lot of ” fixed ideas ”, to use one of Didion’s own ideas. titles and the gradual evolution of a style of writing towards what would become a style of thought. Didion is of course inseparable from the idea of style. An interest in the superficial is something else she has often been criticized for, unfairly I think. For all the recognizable stylistic consistency of his prose across the decades of his career, it takes an intentional lack of generosity to miss the evolution of his writing and thought. In the essay “In Bogotá”, for example, written in 1974 and collected in The white album in 1979, she remembers her stay in a place which had known the violent expression of the American Monroe doctrine as “mainly images, indelible but difficult to connect”. This essay barely contains a whisper of what would become, a decade later, in Salvador, a much deeper and more burning examination of the brutal consequences of American influence and interference on the periphery of its global empire.