Two grande dames

Valuable new essay collections from Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.

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They could be sisters. Joan Didion and Susan Sontag share so much, it's hard to believe they have no common genetic ancestry. The two do share a tight relationship on the time line, however: both coming of age artistically during the tumult and excitement of the '60s, waging parallel battles against empty orthodoxies in anti-intellectual America in the decades since, and arriving together — as if on cue — as the nation's grand old dames of letters just as such an honorary title has come to mean little, if anything.

Thematically too, they have trod similar territory. While Didion scavenged through social upheaval and pop culture in search of meaning (in the essays collected in 1968's Slouching Toward Bethlehem and 1979's The White Album), Sontag took up arms with the soldiers of camp and "low culture," extolling their virtues in 1966's Against Interpretation. Both have since explored the destitute and war-torn, Didion in the trenchant if truncated Salvador, Sontag in essays on the former Yugoslavia. While known best for nonfiction, both have written novels of note, the better ones being Didion's, particularly Play It as It Lays and The Last Thing He Wanted. (Sontag's fiction, especially The Volcano Lover, is thematically rich and refreshingly unironic, but her clunky style and tin ear for dialogue make them rocky reads.) Both befriended and championed the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; both used the Doors as a cultural reference point. (Sontag posited the rock band and Dostoevsky as poles of the high-/ low-culture debate; Didion one-upped her by hanging with Morrison and company in the studio.) Naturally, they even share audiences, according to that inexorable arbiter of cultural synergy,, which lists Sontag as one of the authors Didion buyers also read. If not for their nicely contrasting styles — Didion's, just-beneath-the-surface angry and piercingly linear; Sontag's, detached and free-roaming — casual readers might be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

Given that they've danced in each other's considerable shadows for years, it's sort of quaint that the pair's different publishers have released their latest collections almost simultaneously: Political Fictions, a compilation of essays Didion wrote for The New York Review of Books from 1988 to 2000, and Where the Stress Falls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 347 pp., $27), a wide-ranging collection of 41 Sontag pieces from the past 20 years. The books won't prompt any radical rethinking of the authors, but they are valuable nonetheless — fitting testaments to the unfailing consistency of lives spent trying to extract meaning from life and questioning what others are willing to accept as living.

Of the two collections, Didion's, with its sharp focus on our frayed, dollar-centric political system, is easier to read (although not necessarily the better book). Didion's wisps-from-the-ears tone suffuses each of the nine meditations on our fictive and flawed electoral process. The author lets us know what she's up to in her scathing foreword, in which she professes a lack of initial interest or expertise in her subject: "The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not recognize. The stakes of the election as presented seemed not to compute."

Put off by the issueless, meaningless, horse-race-fixated pseudo-drama of political reporting, Didion considered blowing off an assignment to cover the 1988 Dukakis/Bush race, feeling she knew little of what politics meant any more. On the campaign trail, she found increasing indications that many disillusioned voters had felt the same way for years — and that the professionals "inside the process" were all too ready to simply dismiss and ignore these "apathetic" citizens. To Didion, it was the beginning of the end of the two-party system: There was no real choice to be made.

From this blurring of political distinctions, Didion extrapolates, came 36 days in Florida at the end of last year. Political insiders got just what they wanted: a few hundred upper-middle-class folks determining the next leader of the free world. "[T]he 'true story' of the 2000 campaign was that the Republican and Democratic parties had at least achieved 'parity,' which meant they were now positioned to split the remaining electorate, those middle- and upper-middle-class Americans who would be the dominant voters of the Information Age," she balefully notes.

From this sad thesis, Didion artfully deconstructs the "managerial elite" that runs campaigns and frames the few issues and many images contained in them. "These were people who spoke of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns," she writes.

Didion takes some side trips of note as well, revisiting El Salvador (at least thematically) to pore over reports of the 1982 El Mozote massacre by U.S.-backed Salvadoran government troops and expose how Ronald Reagan's diplo-military glossed it over. In a 1995 piece, she takes on the ADD-afflicted intellect of Newt Gingrich, then riding high, and the short-lived "Contract With America" hysteria. ("[H]is view of the future is 1955, factory-loaded with Year 2000 extras," she writes.) She rips Washington Post journalistic godhead Bob Woodward a new one for the hands-off, passive "analysis" of politicos in his books, "in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent"; attacks right-wing support for faith-based initiatives; and bemoans the religiosity of the 2000 campaign as embodied by George W. Bush and Democratic VP candidate Joseph Lieberman.

While Didion is hardly staking out new ideological or journalistic turf, the relentlessness of her questioning leaves bare the hackdom of bigfoot reporter / commentators like Woodward, E.J. Dionne, and David Broder. The fact that Didion has no faith in the process or those who apologize for it, and can explain it all so completely and convincingly, makes Political Fictions a sinewy, substantial achievement.

For Sontag, the two-party system exists but doesn't involve Democrats and Republicans; it's the perpetual competition for the soul between poets and prose writers. Sontag takes debates about the value of those two parties seriously enough to go on about them.

The pan-intellectual who once celebrated popular culture and urged that it should be valued now sounds disappointed — though, to her credit, not embittered. Poets and prose stylists aren't what they used to be, which makes Sontag weary. She laments the United States' stranglehold on the world's imagination, noting how the late Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz's concern for Beauty, Goodness, and Truth sounds like a communication from a world that has since died. "The European-style ideals of maturity, cultivation, wisdom have given way steadily to American-style celebrations of the Forever Young," Sontag writes. "The discrediting of literature and other expressions of 'high' culture as elitist or anti-life is a staple of the new culture ruled by entertainment values."

So, is it the Doors or Dostoevsky this time around? "To laud work condescended to then as 'popular' culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its complexities," Sontag writes in a 30-years-hence follow-up to Against Interpretation. "If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoevsky, then — of course — I'd choose Dostoevsky. But do I have to choose?"

Still, Sontag has a long way to go before becoming a prude. She revels in the shock of the new — as essays on Mapplethorpe and Polly Borland show — as much as she does the exhumation of exquisite literary corpses. She saves her best voice for those writers with strong national identities and little else, voices she resuscitates with a revisionist glee that is clearly heartfelt. (Among them are some truly great writers: Gombrowicz, Yugoslavia's Danilo Kis, Mexico's Juan Rulfo, Brazil's Machado de Assis.) Her introduction to a collection by the French deconstructer of signs and surfaces, Roland Barthes — reprinted here in its entirety — still qualifies as masterly in its own right, as does her recent brief dissection of the brilliant German writer W.G. Sebald.

There's more here — with Sontag, there's always more, including spirited essays on dance, art, theater, travel. Although she can be aggravatingly gimmicky, turning essays into lists, lexicons, and letters to dead heroes, Sontag largely escapes the fetish for artifice that can mar such aesthetic meditations. Being a time-honored mandarin may not mean what it used to, but the joy of it is in the crafting of the work itself, a fact not lost on either Sontag or Didion.

Michael Anft writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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