Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the last book I read

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion.

It's 1984, and the USA is engaged in various murky covert operations in Central America. There's also a US presidential election campaign going on, which Elena McMahon is engaged to cover as a journalist. For reasons murky to everyone but herself (and maybe even to herself) she walks off the campaign in mid-swing and heads off to Miami to visit her father.

It seems Elena has some form in terms of unexplained sudden absences, having walked out on her now ex-husband Wynn Janklow and their teenage daughter Catherine a couple of years earlier for equally opaque reasons. One of the reasons she's decided to resume contact with her father is to bring him the news of her mother's death, but Dick McMahon seems more concerned with a deal he's cooked up with a strictly off-the-record arm of the US government to facilitate the supply of some arms to the Nicaraguan rebels. This is one of those One Last Big Job deals to set Dick up for a cosy retirement drinking bourbon and tinkering with his yacht, but it's scuppered by the sudden deterioration in Dick's health which threatens his participation. Seemingly for no better reason than because she can't think of anything better to do, Elena agrees to step in and take Dick's place - the job being to escort a planeload of arms to a military airfield in Costa Rica, meet the designated contact, pick up a million bucks and come straight back.

Needless to say it turns out not to be quite as straightforward as this - there's no-one waiting at the airfield with a convenient suitcase full of cash, so Elena has to get herself escorted to the nearest town, where she settles in at a hotel and waits for further instructions. These instructions take the form of the clandestine delivery of a fake passport in the name of Elise Meyer and a one-way ticket to an un-named Caribbean island, where Elena again books in at a hotel and waits for some news. Oddly, there seem to be a lot of Americans about, and few of them seem to be holidaymakers.

Gradually it becomes clear that there is going to be no payment for Dick McMahon's arms deal - all the clearer when Elena learns that Dick McMahon has died in a nursing home back in Florida - supposedly of natural causes, but if that were the case why didn't her contact mention it when she spoke to him? Feeling the walls closing in on her, Elena panics and flees the hotel, but with no passport she can't go far.

At this point US government troubleshooter, fixer, smoke-jumper and general can-do guy Treat Morrison steps in - called in to investigate after a panicked visit by Elena to the US embassy, he eventually tracks her down to the remote hotel where she's gone into hiding, at which point an unlikely romance develops. But just as there are things Elena doesn't know about, it turns out there are things Treat Morrison doesn't know about as well, in particular an assassination plot against a senior US diplomatic official on the island. The plot itself may or may not be real, but it provides a pretext for pinning responsibility for the plot on someone; someone who's proving an unexpected inconvenience perhaps....

Joan Didion is probably more famous for non-fiction, and political journalism in particular, than fiction, and this reads in places like a government report - much circuitous euphemism and jargon to skirt elliptically around unpalatable topics, repetition of key phrases, focusing on procedural minutiae rather than real moral issues, and a general tone of spooked paranoia - even though, to be fair, it turns out they are out to get you, in the end.

I can't remember a great deal about the only other Didion novel I've read, which was this one's predecessor Democracy, but the tone and central concerns were very similar, as well as the central characters - tough but brittle and remote female character who is elegant but tough in an Anna Wintour (or indeed Joan Didion) sort of way but, conversely, strangely susceptible to the charms of the slightly older world-weary guy who's deeply embedded in the system but at the same time has a heart of gold, both characters, paradoxically, being drawn together by their very coldness and remoteness. The difference, I suppose, is that in Democracy the central romance was played out over the course of the book and 20-odd years, whereas here it occupies no more than 20-odd pages at the end of the book and barely a couple of weeks by the book's internal timeline. The general paranoia and cynicism of all that's gone before being book-ended by effectively a tale of love at first sight seems like a slightly jarring change of pace, even if it does all ultimately end in tears.

Having said all that I enjoyed this greatly, though it won't be for everyone - there's a degree of metafictional detachment, as the narrator is a journalist piecing together the facts of the affair 10 or so years later - maybe it's even Didion herself? It also takes lot of words to describe a basically very simple plot that could be wrapped up in a dozen or so pages, though it does its circumlocutions in a very entertaining way.

The Last Thing He Wanted was published in 1996, and its immediate predecessor Democracy in 1984. In all Didion has published five novels in 47 years, and none since 1996, and she's now 76, so you may find that that's your lot. If so, and you want one and only one, I'd recommend Democracy.

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