In the Wasteland

The Last Thing He Wanted

by Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp., $23.00

Joan Didion
Joan Didion; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.