I had known about Joan Didion for some time before I finally read this omnibus collection of her work. I had come across a few of her essays in various anthologies and composition textbooks (usually the one on keeping a notebook, the dramatic discussion on the Santa Ana winds, or the piece on Hawaii from The White Album), and had always heard that she writes about California better than anybody except perhaps John Steinbeck. With this collection, I found I had in my hands an extremely intense body of work, so I'd finish one collection of essays and then return to read the next one after I'd spent some time away reading other authors. It took over a year of putting this book down and then returning to it, but now I'm done, and it's an emotionally exhausting but tremendously rewarding experience to have read her entire non-fiction output.
The first thing I noticed, once I had read just a few of her essays one after the other, was how original--and how widely imitated--her writing style is. I realized I'd been reading Didionesque reportage in the NY Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The NY Review of Books, Harpers, The New Republic etc. for years and had never known it. All the stylistic devices--the opening, all-encapsulating yet at first glance maddeningly indirect anecdote, the jump cut narrative technique that inevitably circles back to a single arresting incident or image, the devastating short-long sentence juxtapositions etc.--are there from the beginning. The thing is, she started it all and has remained the central practitioner of the art. It's as if the most highly accomplished of short story writers has taken to reportage of current and cultural events with a literary vengeance, which is what I suppose that over-used term the "New Journalism" refers to. She leaves Tom Wolfe et al. in the dust though.
What emerges from the perfect blend of personal narrative and relentless reportage is a stunning, unofficial view of our post-WWII national history: we have America's uneasy transition from the straitjacketed, tract-housing idealism of the 50s into the uncertainty of 60s; a quietly lacerating critique of the Haight-Asbury San Francisco era; the nagging presence and perhaps unknowable consequences of American involvement in Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua, from the Kennedy-Castro days through to the waning days of the Reagan administration; and always the perverse (almost pathological) underbelly of the Golden State, from the fundamentalist, largely mid-western/southern border states origins of the post-WW II Inland Empire and San Joaquin valley, to her largely unsentimental memories of middle decades Sacramento, where she grew up. Indeed, California's various mutations, as described by Didion, seem to encapsulate the slippery and ungraspable nature of truth in our fabled post-nuclear age. One phenomenon that seems to hold so much of the work together--merging California with Washington--is Ronald Reagan. Didion's contempt for the man is palpable. She writes about him as actor, corporate spokesperson, governor of California and president, and it fits too that this man stands as one of the most image-driven, elusive and vacuous figures in twentieth-century American public life.
What is remarkable is how sustained the quality of the writing is. I found her 80's work on Central America, Miami and Cuba, which was quite a departure from her first two, more famous collections, to be fascinating in their evocation of conspiracies, drugs, mind-numbing violence and chaotic ideological warfare. While for me there's a bit of a drop-off with the "After Henry" collection, her reflections on American political life from the 1988 election through to the eve of the 2000 election (the "Political Fictions" collection) have a remarkable level of perspicacity and unity in their outlook. To me, Didion was the first to notice what is now recognized as a common fact of American political culture: that it is driven by a self-generated, self-perpetuating class of media professionals who have been successfully co-opted by the spin-meisters of both parties. As a class they are utterly disconnected from life outside the beltway, and they endlessly discuss among themselves--at great cost to the quality of political knowledge and discourse in our country--the nuances of the medium and never the merits of the message.
So, if you want a juicy sampling of our culture and history gleaned from the last fifty or so years, as seen through the merciless gaze of a writer who unerringly enters entire decades and cultural fields through the back door, this is the book you're going to want to read. As I said earlier, it's a very intense and demanding experience reading the 1000 or so densely packed pages the Modern Library has put together here, and there's no way you'll do it in one go. However, you'll return to it over and over until you're done, and will find it well worth the effort.