Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In this week's NYRB

Charles Simic praises Daniel Mendelsohn's new book; Joyce Carol Oates admires Claire Messud's fiction (not online, but it's a good essay about her earlier work as well as the new one); and an interesting long essay about Dick Cheney by Joan Didion.

I've always been neutral to negative on the early Didion, I find that persona of the essays so neurasthenic and self-absorbed as to be almost unreadable, but it's a long time since I've read her seriously and I've been meaning to take her stuff up again and see what I think now (the attractive Everyman edition of her collected nonfiction recently came my way and I'm definitely going to try and get to it soon).

She totally got me with this essay and then lost me again: there was a sentence so good I sat up and really started paying attention (she's close-reading something Cheney said about the separation of powers--"There are some recognizable Cheney touches here," she writes, "resorts to the kind of self-deprecation (as in 'I didn't like the East' and 'I flunked the interview') that derives from a temperamental grandiosity"--and it struck me as genuinely brilliant); then there was another one, about the retroactive claim that the administration had not asserted there to be any connection between Iraq and 9/11 ("This was not a slip of memory in the heat of debate. This was dishonest, a repeated misrepresentation, in the interests of claiming power, so bald and so systematic that the only instinctive response (Did too!) was that of the schoolyard"); and then she had a third one that actually came closer to infuriating me, I thought "No, if you had left it where you were, I would have gone away from this piece thinking that I had read an extraordinarily perceptive and super-smart character dissection but with this you've tipped over the edge into something too (a) polemical and (b) satisfied with its own intellectual style and insightfulness in a way that totally puts me off."

Here's the sentence in question: "The personality that springs to mind is that of the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet." The reference is alienating to me partly because it seems out of date (or just irrelevant to me, I did not go to ahigh school like that--"letter jacket"?!?), partly because there is an unattractive relentlessness and also self-satisfaction when you get this observation in sequence following the others I've quoted. It's not that I disagree, just that I don't find it rhetorically effective.

But if you've got this issue lying around and don't plan on reading the article, make sure you look at the two pictures: there is a photo of Cheney and Rumsfeld from 1975 in which Cheney has the most extraordinary expression on his face, it's quite something....

Off to reread Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year for a guest lecture; I've been teaching Moll Flanders too, what a good novel. This is the first time ever that I've been teaching two novel classes in one semester, by the way, and I think it will spur a lot of thinking about the techniques of both contemporary and eighteenth-century fiction. Last night's seminar: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, an extraordinarily interesting and enjoyable novel whose use of the particular detail (the "novelistic" detail, as it is often but misleadingly called) is especially striking and innovative.


  1. Completely with you on Didion. I've never understood what the fuss was about, and I too find her persona narcissistic. Pauline Kael (whom I like) wrote a scathing destruction of Play It As It Lays (it's in For Keeps). Her description of Didion:

    "The ultimate princess fantasy is to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of; you are simply too sensitive for this world--you see the truth, and so you suffer more than ordinary people and can't function."

    And she also found the ultimate Didion quote:

    "I am haunted by the cannibalism of the Donner Party."

  2. You have totally put your finger on it--I must read that Kael essay!

  3. Now, see, I love early Didion. When I was writing my senior essay (1986), I read a Didion book a day, essay collections and novels. I don't think it's her sensibility I love--I can totally see why it would be annoying, and that same smugness you describe here is there in those essay collections whose names I'm forgetting and don't feel like looking up--but the impeccable construction at the structural/essay level is irresistible to me. They teach beautifully, too. But I've had The Year of Magical Thinking for months now and haven't read it. I didn't like the excerpt in the Times, I think because it was so confident in its generalizing based on her singular experience, which is related to Mr. Waggish's comment. But so many people have loved it that I think I must read it soon.

  4. Hi - This is another, less-than-enraptured essay on Joan Didion... I think it does get at something:



  5. The Harrison essay is devastating. She gets a great quote from Gloria Steinem about Didion: "Ask her how come, if she spends all her time crying and swimming and struggling to open a car door, she finds the energy to write so much?"

    That said, I was completely obsessed with her for several years and still have a strong reaction to many of her early essays. I can see the flaws, certainly, but there's something there that always gets me. John Leonard wrote a great appreciation of The Year of Magical Thinking in NYRB.

  6. Not to cause trouble, but don't get me started on John Leonard! I found his twin panegyrics to Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion to be embarrassing and, under the circumstances, deeply sycophantic. On Hardwick, in the NYRB:

    "We are so comfortable in such company that we lean on her, as if she were a brother or a broom. And then all of a sudden, by rag doll twinkletoes and sleight-of-hand, we are head over heels."

    To end on a positive note, I think Coetzee is by far the best lit critic currently writing for the NYRB. And have you read Richard Wollheim's "Germs"? Supposedly an incredible memoir, though I've had difficulty tracking it down.

  7. Richard Wollheim's Germs is all too easy to find. You can order it direct from its principal publisher in the UK and the book will be airmailed within 24 hours, to arrive in the US in 5-7 working days. It is incredible. The address to go to is www.waywiser-press.com/orders

  8. I think it's hard for many people to understand the mentality of people from old california families. Anyone who writes about him or herself is in some way "narcissistic." Didion uses herself as a stand-in for the equally detached observer in life (both curious and apathetic)