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by Joan Didion
ISBN 0375718907 / 9780375718908 / 0-375-71890-7
› Find signed collectible books: 'Political Fictions'
This collection of eight essays covering U.S. politics between 1988 and 2000 is a critical look at what author Joan Didion calls "the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience." The New York Review of Books originally published these writings, and they hit all the major events of the previous dozen years: the election of George Bush (the first), the emergence of Bill Clinton, the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton's impeachment, and the 2000 race between George Bush (the second) and Al Gore. During this period, Didion worked and reworked a theme of political disconnect. In examining who cast ballots in 2000 (for the first time, more than half of all voters had incomes about $50,000), she notes acidly in her foreword: "That this was not a demographic profile of the country at large, that half the nation's citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived, that the democracy we spoke of spreading throughout the world was now in our own country only an ideality, had come to be seen, against the higher priority of keeping the process in the hands of those who already held it, as facts without application." She puts it a bit more succinctly elsewhere by describing "the largest political party in America" as "those who did not vote."
Didion brings a novelist's eye to her project, and she delights in exposing fakery. In describing one of Vice President Bush's visits to the Middle East in the 1980s, she notes that his advance team requested that camels be present at every stop--so that photographers could capture the supposed authenticity of the trip. Many of the essays in Political Fictions are, at a fundamental level, book reviews--and Didion's observations can be withering. She calls Newt Gingrich's novel 1945 "a fairly primitive example of the kind of speculative fiction known as 'alternate history.'" The accomplishment of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, she says, is to have produced "books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent." Her targets are not always other writers: "No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched William Jefferson Clinton running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent." Needless to say, Political Fictions is not a celebration of American democracy. It is more like an indictment. --John Miller [via]