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In the Wasteland

The Last Thing He Wanted

by Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp., $23.00

Joan Didion’s novels are a carefully designed frieze of the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world. To design a structure for the fadings and erasures of experience is an aesthetic challenge she tries to meet in a quite striking manner; the placement of sentences on the page, abrupt closures rather like hanging up the phone without notice, and an ear for the rhythms and tags of current speech that is altogether remarkable. Perhaps it is prudent that the central characters, women, are not seeking clarity since the world described herein, the America of the last thirty years or so, is blurred by a creeping inexactitude about many things, among them bureaucratic and official language, the jargon of the press, the incoherence of politics, the disastrous surprises in the mother, father, child tableau.

The method of narration, always conscious and sometimes discussed in an aside, will express a peculiar restlessness and unease in order to accommodate the extreme fluidity of the fictional landscape. You will read that something did or did not happen; something was or was not thought; this indicates the ambiguity of the flow, but there is also in “did or did not” the author’s strong sense of a willful obfuscation in contemporary life, a purposeful blackout of what was promised or not promised—a blackout in the interest of personal comfort, and also in the interest of greed, deals, political disguises of intention.

Joan Didion’s novels are not consoling, nor are they notably attuned to the reader’s expectations, even though they are fast-paced, witty, inventive, and interesting in plot. Still they twist and turn, shift focus and point of view, deviations that are perhaps the price or the reward that comes from an obsessive attraction to the disjunctive and paradoxical in American national policy and to the somnolent, careless decisions made in private life.

I have the dream, recurrent, in which my entire field of vision fills with rainbow, in which I open a door onto a growth of tropical green (I believe this to be a banana grove, the big glossy fronds heavy with rain, but since no bananas are seen on the palms symbolists may relax) and watch the spectrum separate into pure color. Consider any of these things long enough and you will see that they tend to deny the relevance not only of personality but of narrative, which makes them less than ideal images with which to begin a novel, but we go with what we have.

Cards on the table.

This writer is the poet, if you like, of the airplane and the airport. Offhand journeys to Malaysia or to troubled spots in Central America are undertaken as if one were boarding the New York-Washington shuttle. For the busy men we learn somewhere in the pages that any flight under eight hours is called a “hop.” So, we head out for the blue yonder by air as earlier novelists wrote of signing up for a term on shipboard. “Sailors are the only class of men who now-a-days see anything like stirring adventures; and many things which to fire-side people appear strange and romantic, to them seem as common-place as a jacket out at elbows” (Melville, preface to Typee). TWA flying round the world every day is just a “jacket out at elbows.” Nothing unusual. Trying to keep pace with an ethereal mobility now become as mundane as a dog trot is a mark of this writer’s original sensibility.

She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport…. People who go to the airport first invent some business to conduct there…. Then they convince themselves that the airport is cooler than the hotel, or has superior chicken salad.

And from the current novel: The Last Thing He Wanted.

I see her standing in the dry grass off the runway, her arms bare, her sunglasses pushed up into her loose hair, her black silk shift wrinkled from the flight, and wonder what made her think a black silk shift bought off a sale rack at Bergdorf Goodman during the New York primary was the appropriate thing to wear on an unscheduled cargo flight at one-thirty in the morning out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, destination San José, Costa Rica but not quite.

The first novel, Run River, appeared in 1963. It is rich in talent and also rich in the virtues of traditional fic-tion; families, generations, births and deaths, changes of fortune, betrayals, set in the Sacramento Valley in the years 1938-1959. It begins with a gun shot: “Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one.” (“Seventeen minutes to one” brings to mind the surgical precision of the information that will be offered in the later fiction.) The intervening pages and chapters will explain what went before the opening shot. In the final pages of the last chapter: “She sat on the needlepoint chair until she heard it, the second shot.” The first shot was the husband killing his wife’s lover and the second shot was the husband killing himself. Some families in Run River are descendants of the pioneers who made the trip of hardship and promise across the Great Plains. There are hardship passages in the subsequent fictions, although not in a covered wagon but in an airplane carrying your uncertain identity in a six-hundred-dollar handbag.

Her nerves are bad tonight in the wasteland of Haight-Ashbury; Joan Didion has migraines, generalized and particular afflictions that bring on tears in “elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries.” The revelation of incapacity, doubt, irresolution, and inattention is brought into question by the extraordinary energy and perseverance found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and the later collection, After Henry. If she has “nerves,” she also has “nerve” in the sense of boldness and fortitude. She will do the lowest work of a reporter; make the call, try again when the promised call-back is not forthcoming. She scouts the neighborhood, finds the houses, and once inside notes the condition of the sink, the baby lying on a pallet and sucking its thumb and the five-year-old on acid—“High Kindergarten.” She spends time with Otto and Deadeye, among other stoned hippies; visits that need the self-denial of a Sister of Charity, although what she brings is a presence, freed of strategies of redemption.

At three-thirty that afternoon Max, Tom, and Sharon placed tabs under their tongue and sat down together in the living room to wait for the flash. Barbara stayed in the bedroom, smoking hash. During the next four hours a window banged once in Barbara’s room…. A curtain billowed in the afternoon wind…. Except for the sitar music on the stereo there was no other sound or movement until seven-thirty, when Max said “Wow.”

Moving from the numb deprivation of Haight-Ashbury to the alert consumerism of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and the White House, Didion finds them apart from the usual politicians who cherish, or so pretend, their early beginnings in Hyde Park, Kansas, or Plains, Georgia. The Reagans’ habits, or perhaps their mode of operation, do not spring from marks left by their placement on the national map. The Reagans come from the welfare state of Dreamland; their roots are Hollywood.

This expectation on the part of the Reagans that other people would take care of their needs struck many people, right away, as remarkable and was usually characterized as a habit of the rich…the Reagans were not rich: they, and this expectation, were the product of studio Hollywood, a system in which performers performed, and in return were cared for…. She [Nancy Reagan] was surprised (“Nobody had told us”) that she and her husband were expected to pay for their own food, dry cleaning, and toothpaste while in the White House. She seemed never to understand why it was imprudent of her to have accepted clothes from their makers when so many of them had encouraged her to do so…. The clothes were, as Mrs. Reagan seemed to construe it, “wardrobe”—a production expense, like the housing and the catering and the first-class travel and the furniture and paintings and cars that get taken home after the set is struck—and should rightly have gone on the studio budget.

Play It As It Lays (1970) is the first of the digressive, elusive novels, typical in style and organization of the challenging signature of a Joan Didion work. Shadowy motivation, disruptive or absent context in a paragraph, or pages here and there, are not properly to be read as indecision or compositional falterings. They display instead a sort of muscular assurance and confidence, or so one is led to believe in the face of a dominant, idiosyncratic style that if nothing else scorns the vexation of indolent or even some sophisticated readers who prefer matters and manner otherwise expressed. But, as she says, we go with what we have. The author is in control of the invention and if the machine is a little like an electric automobile or one running on pressed grapes instead of gasoline in a field of Chevrolets, the autonomy—it does run—puts the critic in an uneasy situation.

The opening sentence of Play It As It Lays is:

What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.

I never ask is a useful introduction to Maria Wyeth: the sound of the extreme negativism, withdrawal, depression, or terminal disgust of this still-young woman, a marginal figure in the movie business, brought up in Silver Wells, Nevada, by her drifting parents, divorced, finally in the book, from her husband, a director. One might, however, question that the unanswerable evil of Iago would be on her mind, an evil that led even the great Coleridge to fall back upon “motiveless malignity.” But who’s to say she has not at a bar heard a discussion of the ecstatic treachery of Iago that makes its tragic progress to the suffering and death of Desdemona and Othello? It’s just that the inclination to pedantry in instances of piddling, measly inconsequence is sometimes the only protection one has against the witchery of this uncompromising imagination, the settings so various and the sometimes sleepwalking players who blindly walk through windows and fall into traps of great consequence such as the Vietnam War or the world of the Contras.

The women in the novels suffer losses, serious blows from fate that enshroud them like the black dress European peasant women wear lifelong for bereavement; but they are not wearing a black dress except for stylish definition, like the black dress of Anna Karenina at her first appearance at the ball. Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays has a damaged daughter off somewhere in a hospital; she loves the girl obsessively, but there is no reciprocation from the screaming, indifferent child. Maria has had a cruel abortion. At the end of the book a lover or sometime lover dies in her bed from an overdose of Valium, saying “because we’ve been out there where nothing is.”

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