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.”
In A Book of Common Prayer, the daughter of Charlotte Douglas has disappeared and is wanted by the police for a political bombing. In Democracy, Inez Victor’s daughter is a heroin addict and her father, Inez’s, in an onset of lunacy has killed her sister and another person. She has also had cancer. In The Last Thing He Wanted, Elena McMahon has lost her mother and in walking out on her rich husband has lost the affection of her daughter. The interior in which the women live is a sort of cocoon of melancholy, but their restlessness is modern and cannot be expressed like that of a country wife sighing at the moonlight as it hits the silence on the front porch. Maria Wyeth sleeps by her pool when she is not driving the LA freeways all night, stopping only for a Coke at a filling station. But she is driving a Corvette. The women have credit cards, bank drafts, a Hermès handbag, or a large emerald ring. In the heart of darkness men fall in love with them, bereft and down-hearted as they are. The sheen of glamour is useful to give entrance to the melancholy adulteries and to the plot of costly, wild travels and also, in some cases, to politics which come out of the Oval Office or some room in the White House basement and turn up on the runway in Saigon or Costa Rica.
A Book of Common Prayer is a daring title, a risk, even, some would name a presumption. Perhaps the title is meant to bring to mind: Have mercy on us in the hour of our death…Prega per noi. Charlotte Douglas is wandering the earth by air, aimlessly hoping to run into her daughter, Marin, “who at eighteen had been observed with her four best friends detonating a crude pipe bomb in the lobby of the Transamerica Building at 6:30 A.M., hijacking a P.S.A. L-1011 at San Francisco Airport and landing in Wendover, Utah, where they burned it in time for the story to interrupt the network news and disappeared.” Charlotte Douglas goes to a miserable, corrupt little place called Boca Grande, an ungoverned and ungovernable country near Caracas. Her plane took her there with the blinkered idea that her daughter must be somewhere—and why not Boca Grande? Charlotte is killed by some machine gun-toting activist in the almost weekly coups and countercoups. And meanwhile, Marin, the Berkeley Tupamaro, is actually in Buffalo. A Book of Common Prayer is an odd and most unusual study of secular violence and in the case of the wandering mother, Charlotte Douglas, a sort of heathen inanition. Unable to think on the appalling plight of her daughter, Charlotte fills her mind with memories of Marin happy at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, devouring coconut ice under “the thousand trunks of the Great Banyan at the Calcutta Botanical Garden.”
Democracy: Washington, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Jakarta are along the road in this novel of outlandish ambition, justified and honored by the scope, the subtlety, the agenda, as they call it. The time is 1975, aftermath of Vietnam still in the air, and we go back to the way of setting the scene, a sort of computer lyricism:
I would skim the stories on policy and fix instead on details: the cost of a visa to leave Cambodia in the weeks before Phnom Penh closed was five hundred dollars American. The colors of the landing lights for the helicopters on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon were red, white, and blue. The code names for the American evacuations of Cambodia and Vietnam respectively were EAGLE PULL and FREQUENT WIND. The amount of cash burned in the courtyard of the DAO in Saigon before the last helicopter left was three-and-a-half million dollars American and eighty-five million piastres. The code name for this operation was MONEY BURN. The number of Vietnamese soldiers who managed to get aboard the last American 727 to leave Da Nang was three hundred and thirty. The number of Vietnamese soldiers to drop from the wheel wells of the 727 was one. The 727 was operated by World Airways. The name of the pilot was Ken Healy.
One of the leading characters in the novel, Jack Lovett, is in love with Inez Victor, who is married to Harry Victor, a member of the United States Senate and a one-time candidate for president, easy to believe since it is the dream of everyone who has ever had a term in the state legislature of whatever state. Lovett is perhaps CIA, but not a villain, instead a realist who can say, “A Laotian village indicated on one map and omitted on another suggested not a reconnaissance oversight but a population annihilated…. Asia was ten thousand tanks here, three hundred Phantoms there. The heart of Africa was an enrichment facility.” In the novels you do not just take an airplane from Florida to Costa Rica, you board a Lockheed L-100; and in another aside, if such it is, you learn how to lay down the AM-2 aluminum matting for a runway and whether “an eight-thousand-foot runway requires sixty thousand square yards of operational apron or only forty thousand.”
This author is a martyr of facticity and indeed such has its place in the fearless architecture of her fictions. You have a dogged concreteness of detail in an often capricious mode of presentation. The detail works upon the mind of the reader, gives an assurance, or at least a feeling, that somewhere, somehow all of this is true, fictional truth or possibility. It could have happened and Inez Victor did in fact go off to Kuala Lumpur to work in the refugee camps. And that is where we leave her after her love for Jack Lovett and after her escape from a somnambulistic time as a politician’s wife, who must be saying over and over, “Marvelous to be here,” and be “smiling at a lunch counter in Manchester, New Hampshire, her fork poised over a plate of scrambled eggs and toast.” That is, you may accept or allow the aesthetically doubtful because of the interesting force of the factual in which it is dressed.
In any case, every page of the books is hers in its peculiarities and particulars; all is handmade, or should we say, handcut, as by the knife or a lathe. Some unfriendly reviewers, knowing she has written screenplays, will call the frame or the action cinematic. But the fictions, as she has composed them, are the opposite of the communal cathedrals, or little brown churches in the vale, built by so many willing slaves in Hollywood. The first cry of exasperation from the producers, script doctors, watchful number crunchers with memories of hits and flops would be: What’s going on here? What’s it about?
If you can believe that Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, could fly off to Iran, carrying with him a cake and a Bible in order to make a deal for the shipment of arms to the Contras, you can believe the less bizarre happenings in The Last Thing He Wanted. In this new novel, Joan Didion has placed a woman, Elena McMahon, on a plane filled with illegal arms bound for Costa Rica, or for the off-the-map border installation set up by the Americans, the Freedom Fighters. At the end of the flight she is to collect the million dollars owed her dying father, a man who does “deals.” Collect the money and fly back, or so she has been led to imagine. In the usual percussive Didion dialogue, Elena says, “Actually I’ll be going right back…. I left my car at the airport.” The pilot says, “Long-term parking I hope.” She doesn’t return and at the end of an elaborate plot is assassinated by “the man on the bluff with the ponytail”—the same sinister man who had met her at the landing strip in Costa Rica.
And there is Treat Morrison, the romantic lead you might say, who first sees Elena McMahon in the coffee shop of the Intercontinental Hotel where she was “eating, very slowly and methodically, first a bite of one and then a bite of the other, a chocolate parfait and bacon.” The odd menu is mentioned several times but does not give up its meaning beyond the fact that the parfait and bacon had bothered him, Treat Morrison. Morrison is an “ambassador at large,” Department of State, a trouble-shooter, a fixer. Like Jack Lovett in Democracy this is another love-at-first-sight matter, and, odd as that might be, not necessarily as hard to imagine as some of the more portentous occasions. The attractions are ballads: I saw her standing there and my heart stood still—something like that. Treat Morrison and Jack Lovett are attractive men of the world, at work, as the collision of romance leads them to the forlorn, needy women standing there, waiting.
In The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion appears on the page, directing, filling in, serving the narration sometimes as a friend from the past or as a journalist on the case. “For the record this is me talking. You know me, or think you do.” Here she is a moralist, a student of the Contra hearings. “There are documents, more than you might think. Depositions, testimony, cable traffic, some of it not yet declassified but much in the public record.” Of course, Elena McMahon is a fiction as an unwitting conveyor of illegal arms to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but we are to remember the actual players, “all swimming together in the glare off the C-123 that fell from the sky into Nicaragua.” Among those caught in the glare was “the blonde, the shredder, the one who transposed the numbers of the account at the Credit Suisse (the account at the Credit Suisse into which the Sultan of Brunei was to transfer the ten million dollars, in case you have forgotten the minor plays)….”
The Last Thing He Wanted is a creation of high seriousness, a thriller composed with all the resources of a unique gift for imaginative literature, American literature. There remains in Didion’s far-flung landscapes a mind still rooted in the American West from which she comes. When she makes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem a visit to the venerable piles in Newport, Rhode Island, she remembers the men who built the railroad, dug the Comstock Lode for gold and silver in Virginia City, Nevada, and made a fortune in copper.
More than anyone else in the society, these men had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work. And what they did then was to build a place which…led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living. In that way the lesson of Bellevue Avenue is more seriously radical than the idea of Brook Farm…. Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadow of the migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?
She is saying that Bellevue Avenue in Newport is not what the West was won for.
October 31, 1996