BOOK REVIEW / Saint Joan of LA: slouching towards posterity: 'Sentimental Journeys' - Joan Didion: HarperCollins, 15 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS, Joan Didion's first collection of essays for 13 years, offers an unsettling combination of pleasures and embarrassments. The pleasures include coolly vicious ironies, fantastically long, feline sentences, melancholy wit; above all, reportorial excellence harnessed to a reflective, writer's intelligence. Most of what's in the book was published during the Eighties in either The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker. But unlike a lot of the copy that winds up between hard covers, posterity will be glad of this.

In the first section, 'Washington', Didion turns her gaze on politics and the media stories by which 'the democratic process' is retailed to the American public. Accounts of the phantasmagorical public relations that all but replaced policy news in America in the Eighties are not novel in themselves. But Didion's satirical descriptions of Reagan's White House, of Dukakis's doomed 1988 presidential campaign, and of Bush's 1986 tour of the Middle East (during which Bush's people requested that there be camels present at every stop on the Jordanian itinerary) are some of the most elegantly trenchant to have emerged from that decade.

The 'California' section is more free-ranging and ruminative, reflecting the fact that many of the pieces were written as 'Letters from LA' for The New Yorker. Here, among other things, Didion writes about the heiress turned guerrilla, Patty Hearst; the history of the L A Times; earthquakes; brush-fires; Aaron Spelling's Beverley Hills house; the intricacies of the Hollywood caste system. The final, 'New York' section comprises the title essay, a long and brilliant meditation on the competing folklores that grew up around the notorious gang-rape of a Central Park 'jogger' in 1989.

The virtues of these pieces are not of the brazen variety. There is the occasional pearl of mini-assessment: 'She collected slights,' Didion observes of Nancy Reagan. 'She took refuge in a kind of piss-elegance . . . in using words like 'inappropriate'.' (Did anyone ever describe Nancy Reagan's brand of spidery preciousness so perfectly?) But, for the most part, Didion resists slick vignettes and 'in-a-nutshell' portraits, assuming, correctly, that while readers often like this sort of thing it is rarely consonant with the unwieldy, fissiparous truth about people or places.

The key to her quiet, bordering-on-sullen style can be found in an anecdote recounted in The White Album (which, along with her other collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, has just been reissued by Flamingo, at pounds 6.99). One day in 1975, Didion was sitting on a plane waiting to take off for Honolulu, when a man sitting behind her suddenly screamed at his female companion: 'You are driving me to murder.' He then scrambled out of the plane. What Didion disliked about this incident, she finally decided, was that it had

the aspect of a short story, one of those 'little epiphany' stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger's life . . . and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story . . . I wanted to see life expanded to a novel and I still do. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who may or may not be driving one another to murder, but in any case are not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8.45am Pan American to Honolulu.

That preference - aesthetic as much as moral - renders Didion's work unusually resistant to the faked-up 'telling moments' and glibly forged 'connections' that are common fare in feature writing. It also makes her peculiarly attentive to the stories her subjects tell - the ways in which people construct narratives in order to shape and make coherent their experience. This is the over-arching theme of all her writing. It is a form of literary self- reflexiveness that has long since become rather sterile in fiction but which remains largely unexplored in journalism.

That self-reflexiveness can, and often does, tip over into self- absorption, however. And this is where embarrassment comes in. Didion's interest in her role as writer - in the mournful romance of being a writer - has had a viral presence throughout her work. The unease it tends to invoke is similar to that felt when actors veer into fulsome discussions of their 'craft'. In her book Salvador, the minutely recorded blips of her writerly responses often seem to take obscene precedence over the fate of Salvador itself. In The White Album's title essay, she goes to the lengths of copying out the list of things 'To Pack and Wear' that she kept on her closet door during her years as a roving reporter: 'Notice,' she writes, 'the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (ie no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room.' Even without the corniness of the motel-room bourbon, there is something unpleasantly self- serving about that list.

In Sentimental Journeys, Didion's egotistical tendency is most vividly represented by the first essay, 'After Henry'. Ostensibly a tribute to the memory of Henry Robbins, Didion's editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and then at Simon & Schuster, it conveys, in the end, astonishingly little about Robbins: his dim presence is far outshone by the things Didion is telling us about Didion, including the black silk dress she wore (Robbins's attire goes unmentioned) when she first met him.

None the less, the reader is well-advised to be stoical about Didion's self-indulgences. If one can get past her pathetic fallacies and her neurotic, confessional jags, her work includes some of the most graceful, perceptive and lugubriously witty journalism written this century. Here she is, in 'Sentimental Journeys', discussing the media response to the rape of a white middle-class woman by a gang of black teenage boys, in Central Park in 1989:

Later it would be recalled that 3,254 other rapes were reported that year, including one the following week involving the near decapitation of a black woman in Fort Tryon park and one two weeks later involving a black woman in Brooklyn who was robbed, raped, sodomised, and thrown down an air shaft of a four-storey building, but the point was rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.

Reading this sentence is rather like watching the trajectory of a well-aimed punch. Didion's slow, rhetorical build, her icy understatement, her Jane Austenish use of the phrase 'universally understood' combine to provide the reader with an almost physical pleasure. For such pay-offs, one can put up with almost any amount of kvetching solipsism.

(Photograph omitted)