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Fevered Cabin-Antarctic Figments
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THE LAST THING HE WANTED: A NOVEL BY JOAN DIDION (VINTAGE BOOKS)

 

Is it too late to put in a plug for the new Joan Didion? I vaguely recall it being savaged in the Times, feigned with damp praise elsewhere. It is bad, but intermittently fun to read, and raises all sorts of interesting questions which, God knows, most of the critically-praised blancmange that passes for Literature these days does not. The Last Thing He Wanted is another take on the classic Didion heroine, this time loosely identified as Elena McMahon or Elise Meyer or Elena Janklow (well, I guess women are invited, throughout the course of their lives, to change their names, along with their social identities, in ways men do not take into account.) Anomic, disassociated, spaced-outówhat you call her depends on how seriously you take herówith an unerring fashion sense and a razor-sharp insight into what seem to be minutia but are, in fact, the loose threads of some insanely tangled conspiracy masquerading as plot (based, in this case, on the Iran-Contra Scandal of the mid ë80s), Elena follows the author's familiar trajectory from LA, to Southern Florida, to Central America, and finally to an unnamed Caribbean Island. Lip service is almost mockingly paid to the expectations of the conventional novel. There is "romance," explicitly announced as such ("One more romance") with a sketched-in government troubleshooter, Treat Morrison; as well as "adventures," though cunningly drained of any suspense or color; and there are "characters," very funny ones, defined almost exclusively by their language, their few repeated phrases relentlessly dissected, analyzed, until the accidental throwaway line takes on an over-large, surreal, defining significance. But mostly there is style, a highly mannered style with its roots in Hemingway but imbued with a far more subtle and intelligent sensibility.

 

She had set aside the seductive familiarity of the celebrity fundraiser.

The smell of jasmine.

The pool of blue jacaranda petals on the sidewalk where she sat.

The sense that under the tent nothing bad was going to happen and its corollary, the sense that under the tent nothing at all was going to happen.

That had been her old life and this was her new life and it was imperative that she keep focus.

She had kept focus.

She had maintained momentum.

I don't know what jacaranda petals look like and don't care, which highlights both the good and bad points of writing this way. When it works, and for large stretches here it does, then you (plural, you the reader and writer together) have bounded free of something, the deadening one-to-one correspondence of most prose, with its hopeless attempt at U.N.-translating the brain's address to the General Assembly. When it works, you are not, I would contend, reading. God knows what you are doing but it's something in which a dictionary picture of jacaranda petals is not required for the writing to do its job. The bad side: the more mannered the style, the more quickly it draws attention to itself, degenerates into self-reference, parody. Highly mannered writing invites self-indulgence not just on the part of the writer but on the part of the reader (my not caring what a jacaranda petal actually looks like, only caring for its poetical sound and exotic connotations.) It can also be unintentionally comic:

 

The Bergdorf reference makes any experienced Didion reader begin to giggle hysterically. She could be writing catalogue copy for the old Banana Republic store. Suddenly one fears one is trapped in the reverie of some nutty Upper East Side Lady.

So there are flaws, slips. The question becomes: what do we get in return? And I would argue we get a lot. A lot of bang for our buck, as one of her elaborately bureaucratic CIA cowboys would say. Coming in from all sorts of crazy angles, The Last Thing He Wanted does finally delineate a time in our country's recent past of deep and institutionalized immorality. Didion gets not just the particulars right, but the crucial language that was cultivated, and relates it to the godless actions that were taken, to show, and this always needs showing, again and again, the magnetic dance of evil and power in our democracy. All this in a rip-roaring good read, with many sly jokes and some insights that make your eyes stop dead in their tracks and double-back. Most books these days are written in mush. People assume there's some inherent virtue in being unobtrusive. They think a Hidden Truth or Fine Sentiment will get across by having writing that doesn't draw attention to itself. In fact, ten years from now, the prose will be unreadable (seeming, paradoxically, to be extravagantly, thoughtlessly eccentric) and the precious "content" will turn out never to have existed! Didion's work is of a higher order. The Last Thing He Wanted just came out in paperback.While not her best, it's only $12.00 and would make an excellent beach book. In my scheme of things, there's no higher praise.

 

Thomas Rayfiel

Brooklyn, New York

1998