After Henry

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

AFTER HENRY is Joan Didion’s ninth book overall and fifth of journalism. Unlike SALVADOR (1983) and MIAMI (1988), AFTER HENRY is not a single book-length essay, but neither is it, as SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM (1968) and THE WHITE ALBUM (1980) are, simply a collection of previously published pieces. Least of all is it journalism of the expected kind: dashed off and at best of topical and wholly temporary interest. For one thing, all twelve essays were written after the death of Didion’s longtime editor Henry Robbins after he had gone on to work at Dutton while she decided to stay behind at Simon & Schuster, and after Henry had told her that she could make it on her own, without his help—something she did not believe then and seems not to believe now. It is from that disbelief, born of much the same self-doubt that is at the very heart of Didion’s four remarkable novels, that Didion crafts the eleven matchless essays which follow.

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The eleven are divided into three parts: Washington, California, and New York. Behind the regional distinctions, one finds Didion’s consistent interest in discovering and analyzing her native land in terms of its stories, chiefly its media myths. Her subjects are therefore never exactly what they appear to be: a Los Angeles murder case, Patty Hearst, the interconnected histories of Los Angeles and the TIMES MIRROR newspaper, the Reagan White House, the 1988 presidential campaign, and, in the last, longest, and perhaps best of the essays, the Central Park “wilding” that left a young woman raped and near death. “Sentimental Journeys” quickly moves past the familiar facts of the case to consider the ways those facts were presented as a “narrative,” one which offered New Yorkers a story they could call their own: flattering but also dangerously delusive. Ultimately the delusions—whether those of New Yorkers or of Hollywood and Beltway insiders—are Didion’s real target. AFTER HENRY is therefore not really reportage; it is revelation from a writer whose self-doubts protect her from the delusions to which so many succumb so readily.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune. May 10, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. June 1, 1992, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXIX, October 23, 1992, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times. May 5, 1992, p. E5.

National Review. XLIV, June 22, 1992, p. 53.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, May 17, 1992, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, March 23, 1992, p. 51.

Time. CXXXIX, June 29, 1992, p. 81.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 10, 1992, p. 3.

After Henry

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2516

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 Christian Victor, as it is about Didion’s inability to write Inez’s story.

Even when her essays are less personal—personal in subject, that is; Didion’s tone is always detached, even, perhaps especially, when she is writing about herself—Didion is always present as stylist and as ironically bemused spectator. Hers is not a detachment born of the scientific objectivity associated with late nineteenth century realism. It is a detachment born of estrangement, the detachment of someone for whom disillusionment rather than delusion is the operant mode. That is not to say that Didion cannot be sympathetic, especially when it comes to understanding the insecurity of others, but this sympathy is never sentimental. She understands, as she explains in The White Album, that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but this need for narrative, Didion believes, must be coupled with a rigorous examination of those stories in terms of their origins and their consequences. In “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” for example, an essay-review of books about the Reagan White House, she shows speech writer Peggy Noonan, denied access to “the actual president,” inventing “an ideal one.” She shows Nancy Reagan as so entirely a product of Hollywood’s studio system that she cannot even begin to imagine not being cared for and shows her too as a person whose limited social experience bred “untold social anxiety.” Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, appears not to suffer any anxiety at all, so fully is he a creation of his handlers (whether White House or Hollywood). These are the makers of the illusions that others take for reality, but illusions that even the makers delude themselves are real. Didion, whose second novel, Play It As It Lays (1970), deals (cinematically) with the film industry and whose fourth, Democracy, treats modern American politics as a series of sound bites and photo opportunities, learned the lesson at first hand during the 1988 presidential campaign while covering the California primary and the Democratic and Republican conventions. What she learned, more specifically, was that the “political process,” as the candidates and their staffers and attendant journalists liked to call it, was in fact something created of, by, and for insiders only (this in a piece nicely entitled “Insider Baseball”): the politicians, their staffers, pollsters, spin doctors, advisers, and lamentably the press too—all those who “tend to prefer the theoretical to the observable, and to dismiss that which might be learned empirically as ‘anecdotal.’”

In a world as self-contained and as protected by a cordon sanitaire as the convention sites were—the Omni in Atlanta, the Superdome in New Orleans—“remoteness from the actual life of the country” is endemic and the real outsider is “the increasingly hypothetical voter.” “Process” here entails a carefully scripted and choreographed media performance. While some journalists get the story by going for the jugular, Didion gets it by going for the quote, especially when it comes to the press’s willingness to repeat uncritically the tale it has been told in press conferences and briefings. Whatever her subject—the Reagan White House, the 1988 presidential campaign, the Patty Hearst case (as California opera, “Girl of the Golden West”), the Writers Guild strike, Los Angeles as “a city not only largely conceived as a series of real estate deals but largely supported by a series of confidence games,” a city virtually willed into existence by the Times Mirror’s early editor and publisher Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who used the paper to make their self-interest a matter of civic well-being—Didion marshals an imposing and often brilliantly eclectic array of “observable” facts in order to expose delusion in its various forms. Didion is more than an empiricist, however; she is a stylist as well. Her prose is more than simply informative. It is mannered, densely packed, as syntactically labyrinthine as her larger investigative structure:

That evening, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the other executives of the major studios met with Kenneth Ziffren, a prominent local lawyer who represented several Guild members who, because they had television production companies, had a particular interest in ending the strike; the marginally different formulas suggested by Kenneth Ziffren seemed to many the bone they had been looking for: a way of solving the “presentation problem,” of making the strike look, now that the writers understood that it had run out of gas, “like something approaching win-win.”

The effect is cumulative, circuitous, complex, impacted, and convincing. The sentence itself is typical in all but one respect, the absence of the parenthetical additions and asides that Didion frequently employs to disrupt and qualify her “narrative.” Following a similar logic, a Didion essay does not develop linearly, any more than a Didion novel does: the short takes of Play It As It Lays, the doubling of stories in A Book of Common Prayer (1977), the assemblage of raw materials (drafts, news items, photographs, film footage) and the resistance to narrative in Democracy. It secretes, astounds, and finally overwhelms.

Nowhere does Didion put her highly individual method and extraordinary intelligence to better use than in the collection’s last, longest, and most controversial piece, dealing, ostensibly, with the Central Park jogger case. Her title, “Sentimental Journeys,” echoes that of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, A Sentimental Education (1869), as well as her own essay on Patty Hearst. Prepared for by the eleven other essays on other, perhaps more agreeable forms of delusion, “Sentimental Journeys” seems more persuasive and less abrasive than it did when it first appeared in The New York Review of Books. What Didion investigates is not so much the jogger case per se as the uses to which it and its principal players were put, the way the “story” was narrated, made familiar, infected by “a pernicious nostalgia.” Her essay concerns the ways the players were more or less allegorized and the way the allegorical meanings—never stated outright, only implied—served to disguise and deflect attention away from “observable” reality. Didion covers all the familiar ground: the victim, the accused, the trial, the cast of characters, the newspaper coverage, and of course the side issue of whether the name of this or any rape victim should be made public. Yet she quickly moves beyond the realm of the comfortably familiar, citing The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1961), writing at considerable length of the city official whose adulterous affair ended with his lover’s (apparent) suicide, his wrapping the body in a blanket and putting it out with the building’s trash, his subsequent conviction for disposing of a human body in an illegal manner, and his being sentenced to seventy-five days of community service. Didion expertly teases out the subtext of this less well known New York story (relegated to twenty-three lines on page twenty-nine of New York Newsday); she goes on to discuss and make relevant Frederick Law Olmstead’s original plans for Central Park and his reaction to doing business with the city of New York. (As Didion points out, Central Park was always a tale of two stories: Olmstead’s pastoral vision of quasi-social harmony and city officials’ vision of a vast pork barrel of kickbacks and patronage.) The actual focus of this essay, as distinct from the apparent one, is, as in all the essays in After Henry, on “The insistent sentimentalization of experience.… A preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character and the reduction of events to narrative.” As Didion goes on to point out, “The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities.” The mention of “set pieces” and “performance opportunities” takes the reader back, by a curious and certainly circuitous route, to those earlier essays in which “the play’s the thing,” the postmodern equivalent of all the world’s an all-too-literal stage for the histrionics of actor-presidents and others. Exposing their delusions, Didion’s novels and essays tell us, as Anthony Trollope once put it, about “the way we live now,” more perhaps than most readers want to know, and more certainly than the politicians, the pollsters, the press, and other insiders are willing—maybe even able—to tell.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune. May 10, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. June 1, 1992, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXIX, October 23, 1992, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times. May 5, 1992, p. E5.

National Review. XLIV, June 22, 1992, p. 53.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, May 17, 1992, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, March 23, 1992, p. 51.

Time. CXXXIX, June 29, 1992, p. 81.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 10, 1992, p. 3.

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