After Henry is Joan Didion’s ninth book overall and her fifth of journalism—a word that does not begin to do justice either to her style or to her intelligence. The fact that she writes equally well as a novelist and as a journalist/essayist seems, strangely enough, to have worked to her disadvantage in terms of her reputation and critical reception. It is as if, according to the conventional wisdom, a writer can be one or the other but not truly both. There are, of course, novelists who also write essays and reviews (and poetry): John Updike, for example, who is, however, still a novelist first and foremost, an essayist, reviewer, and poet second. There are also journalists who write novels: Robert MacNeil and Nora Ephron, for example, but they are novelists only incidentally. Thus the special problem that Didion poses, especially when Didion-the-stalled-novelist meets Didion-the-frequently-anthologized-journalist in Didion’s fourth novel, Democracy (1984):
A poignant (to me) assignment I came across recently in a textbook for students of composition: “Didion begins with a rather ironic reference to her immediate reason to write this piece. Try using this ploy as the opening of an essay; you may want to copy the ironic-but-earnest tone of Didion, or you might try making your essay witty. Consider the broader question of the effect of setting: how does Didion use the scene as a rhetorical base? She returns again and again to different details of the scene: where and how and to what effect? Consider, too, Didion’s own involvement in the setting: an atmosphere results. How?”
The essay in question might well have been “In the Islands” from The White Album (1979), which begins, “1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why” and whose second paragraph ends, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.” The writing here, even in these two sentences, as everywhere in Didion’s work, is, as Roland Barthes has said of Albert Camus’ writing, at the “zero degree,” a paradoxically styleless style. It is writing that seems not merely bleak, but brittle, not so much at the edge as just over it, the verbal equivalent of the author herself in Salvador (1983) looking over the precipice at Puerta del Diablo, one of the execution sites preferred by that country’s death squads. As the textbook writer would say, an atmosphere results.
This is the reason that the relatively short essay entitled “Fire Season” seems so representative of Didion’s larger concerns in After Henry and throughout her work. Even before visiting the Los Angeles County Fire Department Headquarters in June of 1989, Didion, who grew up in Sacramento and has lived most of her life in and around Los Angeles, knew about the twelve years needed before the brush in the hills behind Malibu that had been destroyed in the last big fire would have grown enough to fuel the next one. She also knew about the Santa Ana winds (which, as she reported in an earlier essay, increase not only the chances of fire but the number of homicides in Southern California as well). She did not, however, know about “flame length,” “fuel sticks,” and “burn index” (a complex formula based on temperature, humidity, wind speed, and the measurable moisture in the brush—the “fuel stick”). “If the fuel stick’s up around twelve,” one forester explains, “it’s pretty hard to get it to burn.… Anything under six and it’s ready to burn very well.” Didion’s prose is under six, well under. It deals with the social, political, and psychological equivalents of those “extreme conditions” that, as another forester tells her, cause fires that cannot be controlled, only contained. For those who live in the hills around Los Angeles, the question is never if there will be a fire; it is when. Reading Didion, one feels something similar, existing at or over the edge that is somehow also the very heart, the eye of the storm, feeling a Roderick Usher-like foreboding of the impending struggle with the grim phantasm fear, minus the gothic trappings of Edgar Allan Poe’s overripe prose.
And that is why the title piece provides, despite significant differences between it and the eleven other essays, a perfect introduction to this collection. (The rest of After Henry is, incidentally, organized by locale: three essays on Washington, D.C., less as a place than as a metonym for the national political life, all first published in The New York Review of Books; seven shorter ones on Los Angeles and Hawaii that first appeared in the New Yorker; and a long essay on New York originally published in the New York Review of Books; “After Henry” first appeared in New West magazine.) “After Henry” is “about” Henry Robbins, who was for many years Didion’s editor. It is about meeting him in 1966, when Didion had a husband, a baby, little reputation, and even less cash; it is about the kind of editor he was—willing to fly to Los Angeles to read the first 110 pages of Play It As It Lays (because Didion did not want to send them to him) and “turning up” at Berkeley to help her get through the lecture she was scheduled to give; it is about his not playing the power game that had publishers at the top, editors just below, and writers at the very bottom, and it is about following him from Farrar, Straus to Simon & Schuster in 1973 but not to Dutton three years later. It is also about his death in 1979 and, more especially, about what he said to her two months earlier, that “I could do it without him,” which, she writes, she did not believe then—perhaps still does not even now. As she notes in another of the essays reprinted here, “At nineteen I had wanted to write. At forty I still wanted to write, and nothing that had happened in the years between made me any more certain that I could.” That line and the self-doubt it suggests become even more interesting in the context of Democracy, the only one of her four novels written “after Henry.” It is not so much about its main character, Inez...