The Secret Agent

There’s something unsettling about Joan Didion. Perhaps it‘s the body of work, and the fact that she’s one of few living writers whose name can be shaped unapologetically into an adjective: Didionesque. Or perhaps it‘s the clean, calm, almost soporific style with which she eviscerates the likes of Bob Woodward and Michael Isikoff and Cokie Roberts in her new book, Political Fictions (Knopf), a collection of eight lengthy essays on the American political process. Or maybe it’s simply her petite physical stature, often described as ”birdlike.“ Of course birds can be deceiving -- love birds have a vicious bite, for instance, and the sweet little hummingbird has come and gone before you‘ve noticed you’re missing an eye. You get the feeling that Didion might have an unknown past, and if you‘re not careful, you might have less of a future. In houndstooth jacket, long cashmere scarf, Anna Wintour haircut and supersized sunglasses that function as a veil -- only her eye movements are visible -- she could be a 66-year-old Swarthmore-trained provocateur. Which is, more or less, what she is. Speaking in a quiet, surprisingly fractured manner, Didion punctuated her answers with dozens of little laughs that seemed less like laughs than points. Very sharp points. When I noted affably that I had asked her several times over the years to write for various publications, she said unexcitedly, ”I know.“ And then she laughed.

L.A. WEEKLY: Have the events of September 11 rendered your new book a collection of moot points? Are the domestic political fictions of the past decade now overwhelmed by global political realities?

JOAN DIDION: Oh, I don’t think they make them moot, no. Because we are seeing a lot of the same kinds of things at this moment -- you pick up the paper, and White House sources are talking about the president having found his mission, and you turn on a television and see Bill Schneider comparing Bush‘s approval rating to his father’s approval rating at the time of the Gulf War. And talking about how it‘s going to be a long-term plus for him because his one negative was what was starting to be called ”the Bush economy,“ and now it won’t be ”the Bush economy,“ it‘ll be ”the Osama bin Laden economy.“ In other words, they’re still talking process, still thinking in terms of the endless campaign. One of the problems with our dealings with the rest of the world is that they are so largely determined by the considerations of domestic politics.

So all this amounts to a kind of extremely unusual business as usual.

Everybody‘s still talking about how it plays. At one level, for the political class, it seemed not to have actually happened, or not to have penetrated. I was amazed by how rapidly everybody slipped this event into their previous agendas. People who thought that the liberals had tied the hands of the FBI or the CIA immediately jumped into that mode. Ann Coulter in the National Review talked about invading their countries and converting them to Christianity. Well [laughs], I don’t know how you do either one of those things. But people seem to find lessons in [the attack] that have very much reflected their underlying preoccupations. I was unable to find any lessons in it.

Yes, I was amazed and dismayed by what I see as the real tragedy of the left, the almost immediate spin of self-denigration and blame -- it‘s the U.S.-led global capitalism, it’s no worse than what we‘ve been doing to them all along -- rather than simply reacting with real human feeling.

Yeah, you kind of thought that this would leave people without words for just a minute. But no [laughs], it didn’t. The only person on the scene who actually responded in any kind of authentic way was, of all people, Rudolph Giuliani. It was amazing, and it still is amazing. I mean, talk about crash-and-burn -- he simply was totally out of control all summer. Then suddenly this happened, and he reached exactly the correct note. Which was dealing immediately with what needed to be done without resorting to rhetoric of any kind. And, in fact, discouraging rhetorical speculation at every opportunity.

One of the pieces in Political Fictions that would seem to be particularly pertinent, if not prescient, is ”God‘s Country,“ in which you follow Bush’s embracing of ”compassionate conservatism“ and ”faith-based diversity.“ Some of the rhetoric from the White House of late harks back to this -- our ”crusade“ and so on.

Yeah, ”finding the mission,“ ”God gave [Bush] his calling“ -- of course all of this is coming from ”White House sources.“ They have a certain agenda, right? What agenda Bush has is fairly opaque. We all know that he was born again after he woke up at the Broadmoor with a hangover or something. But what that means remains unclear.

You quote Bush as saying the country needs to be reborn.

They were all saying stuff like that.

Do you think this event has sort of played right into --

Plays right into that, doesn‘t it. Yeah. That cleansing event that precedes the Rapture.

Now I suppose we have to think about the Rapture.

We kind of had the Rapture, didn’t we.

Yeah, we had it. Speaking of that, you of course used Yeats‘ ”The Second Coming“ -- ”Things fall apart; the center cannot holdMere anarchy is loosed upon the world“ -- for Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I wonder how many journalists have mentioned it this week.

Too many [laughs].

Okay, we’ll skip it.

Everything I pick up seems to be reprinting [Auden‘s] ”September 1, 1939.“ It’s not quite that moment for me.

For the past couple of days, I‘ve been camping with a group of people out at Leo Carillo State Beach. And even though we talked about the attacks around the campfire, there was this essential remove -- you know, life does go on.

Life does go on, and here’s this ocean. Breaking right here, and it‘s probably got fluorescence on it right now, right?

Right. Anyway, it reminded me of another Auden poem that seems a little more apt, and that’s ”Musee des Beaux Arts“ [in which he describes how, in Brueghel‘s painting of the Icarus legend, ”the sun shoneAs it had to on the white legs disappearing into the greenWater“ while the ship in the background ”sailed calmly on“].

Exactly. And you know what this felt like -- after it happened and everything was really quiet except for the sirens and the airplanes overhead. But the overwhelming sense was that it was like after an earthquake. You know how, if you aren’t at the epicenter, it‘s a beautiful day, the sun is still shining.

That was the odd thing about camping -- there are the stars, there’s the moon. And the community.

It‘s a good time to do that. Everybody wanted to be with people they knew. On the very night it happened, we went downtown, a friend was having a birthday party. And it was really hard to get downtown that night because all the subways were out. But by changing to lines I’d never heard of, we managed to get there. And it wasn‘t festive, naturally, it was sort of somber; but it was very comforting.

One of the things I tried to do in those first few days but found impossible was to read fiction. It simply failed to engage.

You know, I was looking for something to read on the plane, and I thought it would be a good idea to read Conrad’s The Secret Agent again. But I got it out, and I realized that I‘d never been able to finish it anyway, so I didn’t read it. But I might give him another shot -- there might be something there, some useful context in which to understand terrorism.

On the BBC World Service this morning, someone used two novels to describe what the U.S. military action might be. He said it will probably be a le Carre novel rather than a Tom Clancy novel.

That‘s interesting. Did you ever read a novel that Christopher Dickey wrote called Innocent Blood? It’s about a suicide bomber, an American whose family was from that part of the world. And he goes there in the Gulf War, he‘s a Ranger, then he begins terrorist training. It’s a good portrait of how those people were when they were living in the motels and going to flight school. That‘s what this is about, that kind of person during that period in his life. And this guy attacks the World Trade Center.

A newspaper quoted the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as calling the attack ”the greatest work of art.“ It was taken out of context, apparently -- Stockhausen says he was referring to Lucifer’s art work -- but probably he was just trying to say that it was bigger and more powerful than art could ever hope to be.

There‘s been a lot of oversensitivity to what people have said or done in this situation. Our daughter is a photographer, and she was talking about how surprised she had been by the vehemence in reaction to photographs of the event -- people writing into newspapers saying, ”How could you show . . . ? How could you invade . . . ?“ You find yourself not wanting to face certain things that come into your mind. I heard myself using the word poetry, and I corrected it to symmetry.

How were you using it?

I just meant something about the image of the plane hitting this tower, these towers that stood in such a way for such and such. I mean, there are certainly more strategic targets. You could have run the plane into a reactor, I suppose, or done any series of things that would have been quite damaging, maybe even more damaging, without the symbolic, without the poetry, or the symmetry.

That raises another symbol -- the flag, which people have been wrapping themselves in.

I was just in San Francisco, and they’re already polarized there. An anti-war demonstration in Berkeley had deteriorated into a flag contest. You know, ”I dare you to spit on my flag!“ -- that sort of thing. Already, we were back in 1967. It was staggering how fast this had happened. But patriotism is pretty easy. War is harder.

Is this patriotism?

There was a real patriotism that got tapped immediately when it first happened. I think people felt a genuine emotion about the country that went deeper than maybe what they had been thinking about it before. But then jingoism came into play and kind of drowned that out.

You say that people are always asking about your politics, and that you think they‘re perfectly clear: You came out of a California Republican family and voted for Goldwater. I interpret this as meaning that you veered left at some point, but not as left as some might imagine.

My responses are pretty much the same as they were when I was voting for Goldwater. I don’t see a whole lot of shift. Obviously, not many people in my family have ever voted for a Democrat. Obviously, I have. But they‘re pretty straightforward, stay-out-of-our-hair politics.

In your new book, you make a fairly strong statement about the state of our democracy, saying that it’s now merely an ”ideality.“ Can things really be that dire?

If you only have a very small group of people deciding, if you have only one party, which I think we have . . .

One party meaning parity among Republicans and Democrats?

Yeah. If that‘s what you have, you really don’t have any mechanism where the will of the electorate can be expressed. So I do think that we have in some way deprived ourselves of what we had.

Our own system?


But how is it different than, say, the Daley or Kennedy machines, or even the founding fathers, who were an elite and probably pretty far removed from the electorate?

That‘s probably true. However, I think it’s different from the Kennedy machine or the Daley machine in that those machines did represent their constituencies. I don‘t know who is represented by the current Democratic Party, or the current Republican Party.

So what you’re saying is that it all comes down to these relatively few middle- and upper-middle-class voters.

The whole pitch is to those voters, yes. And Florida was the perfect place for that. So there, again, is an instance of poetry.

Another thing in Political Fictions that stuck out in light of the attacks is the line from Charles Murray [co-writer of The Bell Curve] on how the Clinton affair ”exposed the rot in the institutions of American republican government. Whether the response will be to shore up the structure or abandon it remains an open question.“

That‘s pretty interesting, isn’t it? There was a whole element at the outer edge of both parties, of both the left and the right, that had been asking that question. But I think that it‘s a much more acute question now. Because I think we could go any way.

I would have thought that this sort of thinking had been obliterated by the attacks and our war footing.

No. I think it’s something we need to watch. Because whenever you talk about the need in a time of national emergency to adjust the freedoms or rights we now have, you‘re going in a direction that takes you a little further from having those freedoms or rights. There might even come a moment when people start talking about not having an election, say, because we’re in a crisis. Arguing that we ”can‘t afford to be without our leader,“ meaning whoever is incumbent. I don’t see that happening immediately, but when nations get into this crisis mode, a lot of rights go by the boards. You know, during WWII, a lot of stuff went by the boards. Look at the detention of the Japanese. Hawaii, which was not a state at the time, was under martial law after Pearl Harbor. I expected New York to be under martial law the night of September 11. That it wasn‘t was a great tribute to, again, Giuliani.

But it would seem that the Clinton affair is relatively small potatoes and easily forgotten at this point.

Not exactly. Because the way in which the political class seized on it -- and used it as an argument to jettison the electorate -- should be worth remembering.

Three weeks ago, I didn’t think Bush would last.

You mean the day of the event? I didn‘t think he’d last a day. [Laughs.]

I meant the day before the event. I didn‘t think he’d last beyond one term.

No, I thought he was a four-year president.

But now he has a 90 percent approval rating, according to CNN. And there‘s Senator Biden this morning: ”Count me in that 90 percent.“

When I looked at Biden, I thought, ”The polls say what people in America want is no more arguing in Washington.“ They want bipartisanship. So basically, I think a lot of that is necessary for [political] survival.

How will these events affect your writing, or what you’ll write?

Well, I‘ve been working on something, a book which is sort of a reflection, an analysis of California. California is an idea that people who aren’t from here can never quite get straight. So I was just trying to straighten it out in my own mind. And my first thought after this happened was that I won‘t be able to go back to this, it has no relevance. The world has changed. And then, after a week or so, I began to think it’s like everything else: It‘s another layer, it’s another level. It‘s part of the book, but you just have to find a way to accommodate the changed world.

How has that changed world changed the political landscape?

It’ll be a long time before it sorts out. I don‘t think this is a situation that can be managed like a campaign. It’s not going to go away. You know that famous Vietnam thing -- how do we get out of Vietnam? There‘s a sense in which we’re not going to be able to say that we won this one and leave. So when life goes back to normal and debate opens up, I think there will probably be an unseeable shift of some kind. I don‘t mean a shift to the left or a shift to the right. I mean a shift I can’t even imagine.