Didion’s latest essay collection—covering the map from Ronald Reagan to Bush II—cynically asserts that the individual’s role in politics has been reduced to fiction while a “permanent political class” has taken over Washington.
While her premise is worthy, the chronological essays lack a consistent flow. (They were originally published in the New York Review of Books.) Didion’s arguments are disjointed, and her overall point becomes diluted in a sea of quasi-relevant anecdotes. “The West Wing of Oz,” from 1988, jumps from a massacre in El Salvador to the invasion of Grenada to the Iran-Contra affair without much analysis related to the book’s theme. Befuddled readers are left to make their own connections.
Things pick up with 1999’s “Vichy Washington,” an insightful look at the players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The title—alluding to the puppet government in World War II France—is indicative of the essay’s sharp critique: that Washington was occupied by “foreigners” who ignored the nation’s desires to avoid impeachment hearings. These outsiders weren’t just politicians but also unelected lawyers, reporters, and pundits who determined the country’s zeitgeist.
Though its topics are often overreported and underanalyzed, Political Fictions does make a convincing argument that the Washington elite serve as scriptwriters in determining the news. In the end, however, the essays work better as individual pieces than as a book.