“Who rivals her, among living writers of American prose, for potency and intensity and influence? If the question isn’t rhetorical, the only conceivable reply is Don DeLillo.”
That’s Leo Robson on Joan Didion in his review of her 1980s output, now given the hardback Library of America treatment. The reason I bring this up is that I’m reading Didion now (first Salvador, now Democracy), and I landed on the same point of comparison earlier this week. I’m a major DeLillo fanboi, as even a cursory reading of this blog will bear out, so the comparison is less of a side-by-side thing and more of a terrific realization that, yes, for all the literary hubbub that her name tends to dredge up in MFA classes and various off-campus events, Didion really is a master. I knew this after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I worry now that I allowed that book to be the quick end-around to “reading Joan Didion” in full. Obviously, it’s a dynamite essay collection. Yes, of course, anyone interesting in nonfiction should read it. But her work runs deeper.
Salvador was exactly the kind of thing that more broadside longform reporting needs to be: a deeply personal, embedded odyssey through terra incognita. I guess the criticism is that Didion only hung around the capital for like two weeks, hobnobbing at the embassy, but the truth of the matter is more specifically picked up in the emotion she leaves on the page. This is a book about terror. And, two weeks or not, it’s a story that can only be told with the sharp observational eye of a writer. The reporters who fly in for scene work on the front lines may or may not grasp that. Democracy, and but I’m only halfway through it, is an eerie/humorous/savvy novel about the delusions of political ambition and the fragility of memory in America. It’s just the sort of thing I go for, and its prose is what called DeLillo to mind. If you dig stuff like The Names, then Democracy is right up your alley, of course. From what I’ve picked up over the years, I guess I don’t get the sense that Democracy is mentioned with the same zeal as some of the other ca.-1980s/1990s global geopolitical paranoia novels. It should be. Or maybe I’m just overly excited as I read this one.
For whatever it’s worth, I’m pleased the be the first patron to check out the Library of America edition from the Akron Public Library. It’s pristine. And the collection is good, too.