A crew of painters and plasterers has taken over the front hall of Joan Didion's Upper East Side New York apartment, and Didion is apologetic. If the smell is bothersome, she says at the door, we can walk over to Central Park. Or if it becomes irritating at all as we talk, we can move to the park immediately. When PW demurs--there is really no smell--Didion leads the way past plastic tarps and white-suited workmen into an airy main room.
It is a space large enough for serious entertaining, and a well-stocked bar glitters at the far end. The faint, mannerly street noise of nearby Madison Avenue filters in on the breeze through the windows, and a cool, greenish light washes over paintings and prints. Books, china plates and copies of the New York Review of Books sit on the coffee table, and pictures--of Didion; of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne; and of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo--are clustered on low shelves and a mantelpiece.
Didion, perched on a low, wicker-backed chair and dressed in a blue sleeveless knit top with a blazer slung over her impossibly narrow shoulders, has aged since some of the more famous shots were taken (she is 66), but her hair, faded to pale auburn, is still cut in the same bob, and her gaze is as intent as ever. Though she does not exactly speak in the hypnotic cadences of her prose, reciting dates and inventories or detailing chronologies, her small, neutral voice is still somehow the voice of her fiction and nonfiction, the voice of the novels Play It As It Lays or The Book of Common Prayer or The Last Thing He Wanted; of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album or After Henry. As she has gotten older, she has eased away from the personal essay. Her new book, Political Fictions (Forecasts, Aug. 6), is composed of pieces she wrote for the New York Review of Books on the workings of American electoral politics. And yet her preoccupations are the same, her themes recognizable, her rhythms and intonation intimately familiar.
It was early in 1988 that Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, asked Didion if she would cover that year's presidential campaign. The business of politics was not exactly a new subject for Didion. The U.S. government's clandestine involvement in Cuban affairs was the true subject of Miami (S&S, 1987), and the Iran-Contra affair shadows the pages of Salvador (S&S, 1983). American electoral politics, however, was something else, something vaguer and bigger, a different kind of beast. If she had any feelings about the process, they were distrust and disenchantment. Brought up in a family of die-hard Republicans in business-friendly Sacramento, Calif., she was an early and fervent supporter of Barry Goldwater, only turning to the Democrats when Ronald Reagan usurped the affections of her fellow California Republicans in the mid-1960s. She is still a registered Democrat, but hardly a party loyalist. As she says, "Sometimes I vote, sometimes I don't."
That detachment serves her well in Political Fictions. It would be wrong to describe her perspective as neutral, but she can be just as coruscating in her criticism of Democrats as of Republicans. What is striking about the picture she paints is the ultimate indistinguishability of the two parties, the wrangling of their interchangeable figureheads more akin to the stylized posturing of classical drama than to the engaged debates of democratic government. In her telling, those involved in the "process"--a relatively small number of journalists, publicists, politicians and pundits--perpetuate the "story" of their choosing, while proceeding blithely to further their narrow interests. This is most strikingly illustrated in her deconstruction of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, in which she traces connections between Kenneth Starr and a number of key conservative Washington insiders, giving startling new credence to Hillary Clinton's claim that her husband was the victim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Didion has never worked like a traditional journalist, preferring to observe rather than interview or follow a story, and in Political Fictions, she mostly observes from a distance. "I've never done anything on the Hill. When I go to Washington, nobody returns my phone calls, so I would just as soon not go," she says. She did, however, hit the campaign trail in 1988, and briefly in 1992, traveling with the press and watching the creation of news and news bites from up close. She can be critical of her fellow journalists--Political Fictions includes a scathing attack on Bob Woodward's reporting methods and critical judgment in The Choice--How Clinton Won, but she recognizes that the role she played in following the campaign was privileged. "They [the reporters] had a different task than I did. They were in the situation where they had to file every day.... They didn't have the luxury I did of sitting around."
For Didion, that luxury of sitting around translated into the luxury of being able to see nothing when there was nothing to see, to detect blank spots where reporters were compelled to conjure up heroes and villains and triumphs and defeats. "Once I realized that there was actually less there than met the eye, or at least that it was comprehensible, then I became interested," she says. "I had no idea that these things [rallies, speeches, "candid" shots of the candidates] were as Kabuki-like as they were. They just went through these motions--this was a set that kept getting struck three or four times a day. The difference between the way things looked standing there and the way they looked on television the next night... it was instructive."
She shifts forward in her chair, sipping from a bottle of Evian water. "The process has evolved into something that exists to perpetuate itself," she says. Does she see her book as a call to action? "I always write as a call to action, but it's like rolling that stone up the hill. I know it's going to keep rolling down."
For all her lack of faith in the predictable arc of "story," Didion's own story is remarkably straightforward. She graduated from Berkeley in 1956, and immediately moved to New York, taking a job at Vogue. It was in New York that she met Dunne, who was a writer at Time, and the two married in 1964. Didion wrote her first novel, Run River, while she was working at Vogue, and a friend of hers shopped it around to different houses. It was finally published--"with really great difficulty"--she says, by the now defunct MacDowell Obolensky. "I think it was reviewed in two places that I remember. It was reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, because I was from California, and in the New York Herald Tribune. And I don't even want to know how many copies it sold. We're talking in the three figures, I think."
Nevertheless, she and Dunne decided to take the plunge and become freelance writers, and they moved to Los Angeles soon after they were married. "Basically, because I wanted to write a second novel, I quit my job, which wasn't very highly paid anyway, and John quit his job, and we decided to go to California for six months. Essentially the idea was to take a leave of absence, but we had to make a living, so we started doing pieces. There were still more general-interest magazines then, Saturday Evening Post was still around... so that was how I got into it."
These pieces--the first batch collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968)--were to make Didion her name. Writing in precise, elliptical prose about such phenomena as Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, Vegas brides and, most famously, the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, she developed an up close yet detached perspective on the phantasmagoria of the '60s. She was near enough to her subjects to be familiar with their dinner routines, but she was distant, too, a connoisseur of silk dresses and Honolulu department stores. Other pieces in the same collection, cited much less frequently, take on John Wayne, morality and the mansions of Newport.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem was guided into print by FSG editor Henry Robbins, who pursued Didion early in the game, when all she had to her name was Run River and she and Dunne were living hand-to-mouth in California. The relationship she developed with Robbins became the central one of her career. While he was at FSG, they worked together on the novel Play It As It Lays (1970), a bestseller and National Book Award nominee, and when Robbins moved to Simon & Schuster, Didion followed him. When he moved again two years later, to Dutton, Didion stayed where her contract was, but she still considered herself "Henry's orphan sister, Henry's writer."
Simon & Schuster's attractions were more worldly. As Didion says, "I never had the relationship with anybody that I had with Henry. But I came to love S&S at other levels. I liked Dick Snyder--I liked that kind of dramatic... there was a kind of flash about S&S in those years that I found kind of irresistible. They had a great, great publicity department. They ran tours like nobody ever ran tours." She stayed with the company through the publication of two more novels and four more works of nonfiction, only moving to Knopf in the late 1990s, where Shelley Wanger is her editor. "I knew her, and I knew that we would work well together," Didion says.
When she talks about how her nonfiction writing has changed, however, Didion refers to Bob Silvers, her editor at the New York Review of Books for many years--and to the advent of the computer. "It was actually Bob Silvers and the computer that encouraged me to do longer and more analytical pieces. The computer made me more analytical. I remember when I first learned to use a computer, I was working in DOS, and it was so logical--any time anything went wrong, I was the wrong one.... In my mind, I started thinking of writing as something like sculpture--you had this big glob of material, and it was a matter of making something out of it rather than sitting there with a blank page, which was the way I had always worked before."
In 1988, after more than 20 years on the West Coast, she and Dunne sold their house in the tony L.A. neighborhood of Brentwood and moved back to New York, probably for good. The upheaval was such that a future move seems out of the question. "When we moved here, it took about a year out of my life, at least. I don't just mean unpacking. Maybe it took two years of sort of disorientation. I'm not actually eager to move again. Also, just the logistics of moving are something I don't want to get into. I don't mean physically moving, but selling and buying and all that."
She wishes she and Dunne could visit California more regularly--"we spend less time there than we would like; we don't have a house there"--but she talks like an entrenched New Yorker, passionately recalling the economic downturn of the late '80s in the city, and saying she quakes when she sees "For Lease" signs up in her neighborhood these days. And in perhaps the ultimate display of New York belonging, she recently achieved a very minor level of real estate notoriety. As president of her building's co-op board (she resigned this June), she was mentioned in the Times early this year in connection with a lawsuit involving fellow resident Cindy Crawford, who was accused by a neighbor of making too much noise. Even the departure of the building's superintendent made the news. "It so happened that that night we were having dinner with the Lelyvelds [the former Times executive editor and his wife], and the next thing I know..." Didion laughs.
Firmly settled as she may be in New York, Didion's next book will be about the state she left behind, the California that defined her existence and was itself defined by her prose for so many years. "I'm about half way in, two-thirds of the way through it. It's nonfiction. I'm sort of stymied by it right now, I don't know exactly where I'll go from where I am.... It goes kind of to someplace else." Go where it may, only one thing may be predicted about it with certainty: it will resist the obvious destination.