The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When Joan Didion died last week, I decided to read this 1996 novel, because it was the only book by her I owned but hadn’t yet read. It’s apparently her final novel by choice. She lived another 25 years after publishing it and so presumably could have written more novels if she’d wanted. Its very Didion-like self-styled “not quite omniscient narrator” hints at why she preferred not to when she says that the story she wishes to relate “lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect.” “If I could believe (as convention tells us) that character is destiny and the past prologue et cetera, I might begin the story” in one place rather than the other, she digresses, pages after she’s already begun the story.
This skeptical journalist-narrator is obsessed with the obfuscations of official language, government circumlocution and media lies, the truths deliberately buried where no one will find them in newspapers, the calculated euphemisms and evasions of intelligence agencies. It’s a beautifully anti-2021 novel for the end of 2021: you’d have to be out of your mind to believe mainstream news, still less to trust the experts, Didion distinctly implies. But this corruption of public language is just one variation on language and narrative’s endemic debility. She remembers what she said to her daughter, tasked with writing a school essay about an event that changed her life:
I recall explaining that “change” was merely the convention at hand: I said that while it was true that the telling of a life tended to falsify it, gave it a form it did not intrinsically possess, this was just a fact of writing things down, something we all accepted.
I realized as I was saying this that I no longer did.
Significantly, what she says is different from what she thinks in this moment. She goes on to declare an interest “only in the technical,” and, following a lengthy ode to the minutiae of how to pave airport runways, quotes the philosopher who inaugurated our late modernity when he told us that language could never be other than a lie:
I give you Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1844-1900: “Where man does not have firm, calm lines on the horizon of his life—mountain and forest lines, as it were—then man’s most inner will become agitated, preoccupied and wistful.”
Yet somehow Didion’s valediction to storytelling manages to tell a story, or at least to indicate where one would be if she could tell it.
The Last Thing He Wanted is a deconstructed political thriller. It might have been a 500-page airport paperback with chapter cliffhangers and smooth-running expository linear prose, with all the characters’ thoughts given in exclamatory italics. Didion instead offers barely 200 pages of fragmentary narrative, metafictional digressions, false starts, conversations without quotation marks (and some with quotation marks), hypnotic repetitions, and a style so rhythmically minimalist that it reads like a prose poem from end to end, even after the overtly poetic overture, a requiem for the ’80s boom, which turns the period’s cliches into an aria:
Some real things have happened lately. For a while we felt rich and then we didn’t. For a while we thought time was money, find the time and the money comes with it. Make money for example by flying the Concorde. Moving fast.
The story the nameless Californian journalist-narrator is trying to tell, and the questions she’s trying to answer, are as follows. Why did Elena McMahon, a former Los Angeles reporter, first leave her rich husband and life as a West Coast society hostess to become a political journalist for the Washington Post? Why did she just as suddenly walk off that job in the middle of covering the 1984 Presidential election? Why did she go to Miami to reunite with her father, a man who “did deals,” who was always looking for “the million-dollar payday,” who intimates knowledge about his potential involvement in “the deal in Dallas” (i.e., the Kennedy assassination)? Why did she decide to help her dying father complete his final deal, running arms through the Caribbean to the Contras in Nicaragua on the secret behalf of the U.S. government? And how did the deal go so wrong? How did Elena—in her father’s stead—get set up in a false-flag CIA scheme to assassinate the ambassador and blame it on the Sandinistas, thus precipitating open conflict? And how did Treat Morrison, CIA officer and self-styled “crisis junkie,” end up going to island to investigate her? And how did they end up falling in love for the 10 days remaining to them? And how did it all end so tragically?
Answers come in hints and fragments. Her mother had recently died. She’d survived breast cancer. Somewhat disturbingly, she was uncomfortable in her wealthy L. A. lifestyle because she was just about the only “shiksa” there. She was middle-aged and wanted a drastic change, a new life, but also the old life, her lost youth, her mother saying, “Half a margarita and I’m already flying,” on the Fourth of July when she was nine year old. As for Treat Morrison, his own wife had just died. He too came from the West, San Francisco in his case; his sister drowned herself. The narrator says at one point, mysteriously, “They were the same person. They were equally remote.” The narrator says everywhere and all the time, as always in Didion’s work, that you cannot finally explain anything about why people do what they do: we’re all equally remote. It’s not 100% satisfying characterization—Morrison in particular never comes clear; some of the scary gun-running side characters wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie of the period—and only works in a novel if the novel is also a prose poem. The title, like a line of poetry, means more than one thing: her father’s final bequest, Morrison’s final romance, the last thing either man wanted for Elena.
Politically, The Last Thing He Wanted balances A Book of Common Prayer from almost 20 years before: if the radical left made all the trouble for Latin America in the earlier book, Didion here blames Reagan and the CIA and even “the Monroe doctrine,” though I suspect she expects us to decide it’s all one system in the end. In a contemporaneous New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani, who would later publish one of the endless Age-of-Trump laments on the death of truth, complained,
Despite Ms. Didion’s nimble orchestration of emotional and physical details, despite her insider’s ear for lingo, her conspiratorial view of history never feels terribly persuasive. It’s hard to buy the narrator’s assertion that history (or, at any rate, the sort of history she believes in) is ”made exclusively and at random” by people like Elena’s father. And it’s harder yet to buy the suggestion that the people setting up Elena may have had something to do with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
In the end, what’s meant to be existential angst feels more like self-delusion; what’s meant to be disturbing feels more like paranoia.
Which makes me wonder if this novel—or, for instance, some of DeLillo’s or Pynchon’s books—could even be published in today’s climate, when their intended educated middle-class readers sport signs on their lawns that say, “We believe science is real,” a bit of epistemic naïveté that would set Nietzsche spinning in his grave, a rotation soon to be joined, no doubt elegantly, by the woman who once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” with which aphorism she intended not to laud our inventiveness but rather to stress our desperation.
Didion comes back again and again to the moment where her heroines make a wild attempt at existential escape from the confines of their lives, only to find themselves in some other, larger trap, here no less than the U.S. empire itself. The moment of transit, though, is what interests her. So much of this novel takes place in inherently intermittent settings: hotels, hospitals, airports, airplanes, airstrips. The narrator chooses to begin her story in a hotel: the moment when Treat Morrison arrives on the nameless island (“The name would get in the way,” she lectures her presumably bourgeois audience who might have vacationed there and thus will miss the political import), when he sees Elena for the first time in a hotel coffee shop, wearing a white dress, eating a chocolate parfait with bacon. The mystery of persons and events. She will end in a white dress, too, the last time he sees her, “her white dress red with blood.”
The novel concludes with the narrator’s hotel reverie: the political personae of the end of the American century gather for a conference in the Florida Keys about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger and then some names I don’t recognize are in attendance. But she imagines Elena and Treat reunited there, too, amid the tropical elegy for the American century. She proffers the saving grace of that ultimate lie of language and narrative, the fairy-tale ending: “I want those two to have been together all their lives.” I give you Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: “We have art lest we perish of the truth.” And why not? We’re going to perish of the truth anyway, with or without art. The only way not to die completely is to be remembered. By writing sentences and stories good enough to last, for example, which is what Joan Didion did. I’m happy to commemorate her for it here: hail and farewell.