My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Joan Didion, though a journalist and a novelist, is a lyric writer. Purporting to give facts or tell a story, she conveys her own sensibility. I praised her for it when reviewing Play It as It Lays, as good a lyric novel as I’ve ever read; compare her to Eliot, Stevens, Moore, and even Poe, I said.
A Book of Common Prayer, her 1977 third novel, makes such praise difficult. Didion’s sensibility is still the main event, but then this is supposed to be a political novel. A political novel against politics, yes, but even that should tell us something about why political people do what they do and believe what they believe, and Didion’s narrator—sounding like the voice of Didion’s essays—doesn’t know that or anything else:
I am an anthropologist who has lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable behavior defined anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasions of birth, copulation, initiation and death; did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Gross and along certain tributaries of Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.
Let me go further.
I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.
Our narrator is a 60-year-old American woman named Grace Strasser-Mendana. Upon retiring from anthropology, she married into the half-American ruling family of Boca Grande, a fictional small Central American country. Upon her husband’s death, she is “in putative control of fifty-nine-point-eight percent of the arable land and about the same percentage of the decision-making process in La República (recently La República Libre) de Boca Grande.” Between the country’s faux-revolutions, which are really proxy wars among her late husband’s feuding brothers, she takes to her laboratory and pursues biochemistry on the theory that it will prove more easily explicable than human behavior. She is also dying of cancer.
The focus of her narration, though, is not her own story, but that of an American (more specifically, Californian) woman named Charlotte Douglas. Charlotte mysteriously arrives in Boca Grande, and the contradictions of her behavior—and the fact that she is being watched by the U.S. government—puzzle the ruling family. Both Charlotte’s brother-in-law Victor and her son Gerardo fall in love, or at least lust, with her. She is an obscure mixture of the helpless, the willful, the naive, the seductive, the ignorant, and the capable. Grace, fascinated and frustrated by her, becomes obsessed with learning about her past.
In other words, Didion in this novel splits into two characters the two sides of her essayistic persona and of Maria Wyeth from Play It as It Lays: the tragic/bathetic waif, drifting beautifully toward doom, and the unflappably cool (but at bottom outraged) observer of the catastrophe. The fusion of these two figures into one accounts for the glamor of Didion’s most famous work, but here she makes the more traditionally novelistic choice of giving us an immoderate protagonist chronicled by a more balanced observer. As the block quotation above shows, Didion takes a Conrad novel like Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness and—in addition to focusing it on women rather than men—strips it down until it becomes a prose-poem made up of incantatory sentences and fragmentary paragraphs.
This formal challenge might have yielded an interesting novel, but the problem for A Book of Common Prayer is that its central conflict requires more depth than Didion can give in this style. Why has Charlotte Douglas come to Boca Grande? She has come because her daughter, Marin (“sweet Marin”), has joined the revolutionary left and become a terrorist and hijacker. (The Patty Hearst story is the inciting headline here.)
Charlotte’s second marriage, to a crusading lawyer named Leonard Douglas, has broken down, and a reunion with her first husband, Warren, Marin’s father, a seedy adjunct professor who seduced Charlotte when she was his student, proved abortive. So Charlotte comes to Boca Grande to wait for her fugitive daughter, since a radical leftist might stop over, if only to make the revolution, in a fragile Central American pseudo-republic.
[I]n a certain dim way she believed that she had located herself at the very cervix of the world, the place through which a child lost to history must eventually pass.
Its status as “the cervix of the world” presumably entitles this fictional country to its jeeringly emblematic name, “Big Mouth.” It is as symbolic of marred and martyred motherhood as is the Gothicized Southern California of Play It as It Lays. Grace, for her part, loves the country for its “opaque equatorial light,” evocative of nothingness, even as she scorns its poverty, its politics, its corrupt ruling class, and its indolently poor populace. Marin never does come to Boca Grande, but Charlotte, in her child-like innocence and unknowing corruption, gets fatally caught up in its power struggles.
The novel, then, is Grace’s elegy for this innocent destroyed by a corruption in which Grace herself was complicit. We might even read Charlotte as Grace’s surrogate daughter (at 60, Grace is old enough to be the younger woman’s mother). Charlotte performs various good works in Boca Grande, assisting with vaccination, family planning, and cultural development. Grace, who regards the country as a place of almost natural oblivion, a satisfyingly purgatorial backwater, feels superior to these acts, but can’t help admiring Charlotte even as she scorns her, as in this moment when Charlotte is outraged to discover that the country’s revolutionaries have been using crates of cholera vaccine for target practice:
I think I loved Charlotte in that moment as a parent loves the child who has just fallen from a bicycle, met a pervert, lost a prize, come up in any way against the hardness of the world.
I think I was also angry at her, again like a parent, furious that she hadn’t known better, furious that she’d been wrong.
We love and hate children for the same reason, Didion implies: they are still capable of believing in the world’s goodness, while we adults most certainly are not. In Marin, this belief has soured into radicalism’s forcing the world at gunpoint to be good.
Didion here echoes Dostoevsky’s conservative critique of the left from Demons: a generation of irresponsible liberals, typified by Charlotte’s combination of California decadence with blinkered optimism, casually knocks down the social structures that allow for orderly human development and thereby rears a generation of nihilistic terrorists. Marin’s ideology expresses itself in the circular logic of a cult, a mere hypnosis into terror:
“The fact that our organization is revolutionary in character is due above all to the fact that all our activity is defined as revolutionary.”
The reader is not surprised to learn that Charlotte’s second husband, the radical lawyer Leonard Douglas, is himself a collaborator with international terrorism. Her first husband, Warren, only seems worse than Leonard because he is an abuser, but Grace feels some affection for him—Didion seems to expect us to feel some affection for him too—since he at least has the dignity of not believing in anything.
Meanwhile, says Didion, the world is not ruled by principles or ideologies, but only by quarreling men, and it is best to stay out of their way. Grace tries to explain this to Marin when she finds her, but Marin can only repeat Marxist platitudes:
A daughter who chose to believe that her mother had died on the wrong side of a “people’s revolution.”
“There was no ‘right side,'” I said. “There was no issue. There were only—”
“That is a typically—”
“There were only personalities.”
“—A typically bourgeois view of the revolutionary process.“
A typically novelistic view, as well, since novelists deal in personalities rather than abstract absolutes. It is here that this novel falters. Didion may believe that revolutionaries are either fools (Marin) or frauds (Leonard), but she should be able to portray characters who convincingly hold radical views rather than just satirical caricatures. At no time are we given a glimpse of what might draw a young person to the conclusion that only a violent alteration of the social structure can end suffering.
Or rather, we are given a glimpse—of pervasive poverty, imperialism, cruelty, and violence—but only through Grace’s cynical eyes. For Grace, the poor you will always have with you, and it seems to be their own fault that they’re poor anyway. At the novel’s end, she openly declares,
You will notice my use of the colonial pronoun, the overseer’s “we.” I mean it. I see now that I have no business in this place but I have been here too long to change.
This is one viewpoint, but a novelist—unlike a lyricist—is responsible for giving us multiple viewpoints. Dostoevsky was a much more thoroughgoing right-winger than Didion when he wrote his mature novels, but he knew and expressed what motivated his radical characters. I still differ from Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s famous censure of Didion; Harrison simply holds Didion’s politics against her, whereas I hold it against her that in this case she has written a stylish anti-political tract, but not a political novel. And great novels are even more persuasive than stylish tracts. Didion’s case against the left would be much more powerful if Marin were a complex character; then we would experience her fall as tragic. Instead, it is only garish, cartoonish.
Didion’s sexual dystopianism is also flat in this book. In keeping with her general conservatism of despair, Didion doesn’t sympathize with feminism because men are so awful, sex so doomed, that there’s no point trying to change anything. Which, again, is one viewpoint, but it is only belabored, not elaborated, when the male characters are a tiresome procession of one-dimensional ghouls in service to a view of sex as inherently injurious:
I recall once telling Charlotte about a village on the Orinoco where female children were ritually cut on their inner thigh by their first sexual partners, the point being to scar the female with the male’s totem. Charlotte saw nothing extraordinary in this. “I mean that’s pretty much what happens everywhere, isn’t it,” she said. “Somebody cuts you? Where it doesn’t show?”
So A Book of Common Prayer fails the novelistic test of dramatizing worldviews in conflict, even though, unlike its distinguished precursor, it claims to tell us something about the world and the views that comprise it just by virtue of its being an international political novel. The lyric poet, though, should at least quarrel with herself, as Yeats once said. If we do consider Grace and Charlotte, as I suggested above, different facets of one psyche dispersed over the narrative, then the book comes alive as a dialogue between self and soul.
Grace may hold Marin in simplistic contempt, as if the girl were some part of her psychology she’s simply cast out, or projected as enemy onto the political landscape; but she feels great tenderness and even admiration for Charlotte. Charlotte is an American, a Californian. She may be a deluded and even fantastical optimist, but we can’t help but admire a certain quixotic drive even in these flaws. She is like Grace’s (or even Didion’s) unsullied younger self, setting out in hopes to help or at least to understand the world.
There is a scene where Charlotte argues about family planning in Boca Grande with Gerardo. He complacently advises that the family planners continue implanting IUDs in the country’s feckless women, but Charlotte protests that they should be taught to use diaphragms, which would give them more control over their reproductive choices. Grace observes:
I think that this was perhaps Gerardo’s first exposure not to the norteamericana in Charlotte but to the westerner in Charlotte, the Hollister ranch child in Charlotte, the strain in Charlotte which insisted that the world was peopled with others exactly like herself.
The final phrase is ambiguous. On the one hand, thinking everybody is exactly like oneself is provinciality and arrogance; on the other hand, it is egalitarian in its refusal to look down on the other. Perhaps Charlotte’s American and Californian universal liberalism is a viable midpoint between Marin’s terroristic communism and Grace’s aloof conservatism. Maybe people can, in the singular and the collective, govern themselves wisely. The novel, with its counsel of skepticism, its narrative of doom, and its tone of bleary despair in the opaque light, gives us no reason to hope so. But if she were not hoping, then why would Grace even bother with this elegy? What else is she praying for?