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Fear of Meaning

Joan Didion
Quintana Roo Dunne

Why Ask Why?: Joan Didion wraps her characters tight against the chill of history in "The Last Thing He Wanted."

Raw-nerved and migrainous, novelist and journalist Joan Didion's characters drift through a world of disaster without purpose

By Tai Moses

AS IT HAPPENS, while reading Joan Didion's newest novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, I came across a 5-year-old issue of House & Garden that featured an article by Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. After 24 years in Los Angeles, they had impulsively moved to New York. Critical in the decorating scheme of their Manhattan apartment was a treasured piece of furniture: an old partners' desk, whose oft-refinished surface lent it an aura of "history and ... attitude."

It's an apt description of Joan Didion's oeuvre, which includes four previous novels and five works of nonfiction. Each book contains copious helpings of history and attitude: the history tending toward the cultural and personal; the attitude one of dread and despair. The famous Didion nerves, shattered by the '60s, traumatized by the '70s and benumbed by the '80s, have made their appearance in some of the most trenchant journalism written in the last three decades.

At its best, her prose is like a closet parsed of all that is flashy, sequined or voluminous, leaving only a single, elegant black dress. Even a slight reading acquaintance with Didion leaves one in possession of the eccentric fact or two about the author: her fascination with Hoover Dam (it's the flumes), her migraines, her dread of Southern California's Santa Ana winds.

She is notable for her unremitting self-scrutiny, her dolorous tone and knifelike sentences, and the atmosphere of paranoia and moral shell shock captured in her essays. On occasion, Didion's essays have helped define their subjects; after the publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, an unsettling portrait of Haight-Ashbury in spring of 1967, no one ever looked at hippies quite the same way again.

book cover

Shivering in a Heat Wave

A FIFTH-GENERATION Californian, Sacramento-born Didion grew up on tales of frontier heroics (her great-great-great grandmother narrowly missed being a member of the Donner Party), and her books are full of the pioneer's innate dread of nature. There are mud slides, earthquakes and wildfires; coyotes howling outside the door; and, infernally, those Santa Ana winds blowing destruction across the landscape.

Safety is to be found only in swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms. It is a telling fact that while Didion's novels are always set in hot places--Los Angeles, Central America, Hawaii--the characters are invariably cold, shivering in the air conditioning of a hotel room or an airport lounge. The conquest of nature comes at a cost; in Didion's land, the climate is one of anomie.

In recent years, there has been a shift from the neurasthenic persona of her earlier essays to a steelier, more resilient--though no less penetrating--sensibility. Didion may no longer need Dexedrine and a shot of gin and hot water to get her through the anguish of writing; still, the strongest presence in her writings remains her own.

Many critics find her self-absorption coupled with her migrainous fragility trying. Gloria Steinem once tossed off this barb to a reporter on her way to interview Didion: "Ask her how come, if she spends all her time crying and swimming and struggling to open a car door, she finds the energy to write so much?" And in a scathing diatribe in her book Off Center (1980), Barbara Grizzutti Harrison accused Didion of being an elitist who reported from her vanity table, which was located "somewhere in Ayn Rand country."

The vanity table remark may not be entirely undeserved. Didion sets great store by details many find superficial. Shoes, jewelry, accents and gestures constitute a code by which she deconstructs people--an elegant hairstyle or a bad dye job, shutters or drapes--each is considered to be a clue to a larger truth.

In her fiction, Didion has created a gallery of emotionally dissociated women. Her classic protagonist can usually be found in some exotic locale, eyes shut tight to signal her intense dislocation from external events. These women are passive and morally adrift; they nurse a presentiment of catastrophe. Memory is regarded as an affliction.

Several have abandoned marriages, walked out on jobs, fled entire countries, only to become marooned in equally hopeless circumstances. There may be a daughter in harm's way--on drugs, in a hospital, mixed up with revolutionaries--and a powerful husband or ex-husband. Although their spiritual disintegration is absolute, they haven't lost their sense of style--they accessorize well.

Maria Wyeth, the disaffected actress from Play It As It Lays (1970), aimlessly drives the L.A. freeways trying to stave off her growing sense of dread. Charlotte Lucas in A Book of Common Prayer (1977) exiles herself to an island in the Caribbean, where she remains for no apparent reason until her death. These are women who are cut off from the past, and make no attempt to predict the future. They are, quite simply, the embodiment of nihilism.

Secret Wars

DIDION'S NEW novel, her first in 12 years, takes place in the year 1984, and the Orwellian resonance of that date is not unintentional. The Last Thing He Wanted is populated by the unsavory ghosts of Iran-contra, resurrected from the newspaper headlines of the '80s: arms dealers and unscrupulous intelligence agents, shadowy foreign figures and government fixers--the architects of secret wars.

Into this milieu wanders Didion's heroine, Elena McMahon, who can be found midpoint through the novel standing in a Central American jungle clad in a black silk dress from Bergdorf Goodman. Elena, in typical Didion fashion, has fled her sterile marriage, her job as a reporter for the Washington Post and her teenage daughter, and gone to Miami to care for her ailing father, only to become caught up in one of his sinister deals.

The plot moves from Florida to Central America to an unnamed Caribbean island and features conspiracy and intrigue, violence and betrayal, an assassination attempt, and even a murder or two. Through it all moves Elena with maddening passivity, caught in an ever tightening web, but always compliant, bewildered, purposeless.

Although Elena writes for the Washington Post, arguably the nation's most influential newspaper, it never occurs to her to use the power of the press to help her out of her predicament. We've come a long way from Three Days of the Condor, in which, caught in a nightmarish conspiracy, the CIA researcher played by Robert Redford ensures his survival by going to the New York Times. Didion takes a far more pessimistic view. Telling your story, she seems to imply, will no longer save your life.

A journalist narrates the book, telling Elena's story after the fact by piecing together the paper trail, using excerpts from interviews and congressional hearings woven together with her own recollections. The narrator, in her words, is "not quite omniscient." This technique gives the book the flavor of a deposition; one can almost imagine the narrator seated at a dais, hunched over a microphone mumbling, "I don't recall" to a Senate committee.

Didion has a high time with what Orwell called the "sheer cloudy vagueness" of political euphemism. Characters talk about "front burner interests" and "previously reliable sources," "interested parties" and "nonlethal resupply."

Didion has ventured into Norman Mailer territory--the realm of the American political unconscious. But where Mailer is impassioned, antagonistic, Didion is cool and cerebral. She alludes just once to "that deal in Dallas," preferring, wisely, not to dirty her hands with too much conspiracy theory. Where Mailer is a pugilist, Didion is a pastry chef. If only the two could have collaborated--her measured cadences with his defiant roar--what a story this could be.

The Last Thing He Wanted could have used some of Mailer's belligerence. Despite its provocative ingredients the surface of the novel remains as placid as a duck pond. For a political thriller, the novel rarely musters much suspense. The emotional tone throughout is muted; we know from the start that Elena is doomed, that no leap of courage or imagination--though you never stop hoping for one--will propel her out of her circumscribed trajectory.

There are some luminous moments; Didion, like no one else, is master of the telling detail. When she describes Elena as an "arranger of centerpieces," it's a brilliant and sad touch--the phrase tells us everything we need to know about this woman's suffocating marriage.

But what the novel is really about is star-crossed love. "This is a romance after all," the narrator reminds us, somewhat defensively, alluding to Elena's doomed affair with the novel's other main character, covert government operative Treat Morrison. For all Didion's insistence on the abyss of existential loneliness, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find that she is captivated by the mythos of Romeo and Juliet, true love and tragic destiny.

Her ideal is incarnated in Tally Atwater and Warren Justice, the sentimental couple from the Hollywood film Up Close and Personal, co-written by Didion and Dunne. "When we're not together ..." says Tally, " ... everything falls apart," finishes Warren. The formula also appears in Didion's 1984 novel, Democracy, which was a love story fueled by the convulsive political events of the Vietnam era. Democracy's Inez and Jack belonged together because they "were equally evanescent, in some way emotionally invisibly unattached, wary to the point of opacity."

In The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion has refined this ineffable attraction down to a single phrase: Elena and Treat "were equally remote." Essentially, The Last Thing He Wanted is only an updated version of Democracy, with Nicaragua subbing for Vietnam, Elena a more lethargic Inez, and Treat Morrison a moodier, more taciturn version of Jack Lovett.

Corpses and Orchids

DIDION'S INTEREST in these characters is stubbornly clinical; she observes them with the detached expression of a surgeon in an operating theater. Elena, like her fictional antecedents, suffers from the chill of alienation: she acts without motivation or inspiration.

Even the narrator confesses that she is interested not in the question of what motivates Elena but in the technical details of her downwardly mobile odyssey. Thus we get a description of Elena's lunch (chocolate parfait and bacon) but never a glimpse of her inner mechanism.

This refusal to question is characteristic of Didion, and springs from her conviction that events happen at random and are essentially meaningless. In The White Album (1979), she described her realization that she had lost interest in the question why, that "all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless." She further conceded that "writing has not yet helped me to see what it means."

Meaning, wrote George Eliot, depends on interpretation--an act that Didion seems unwilling to undertake in her novelistic endeavors. "I will be her witness," proclaims Grace, the narrator of A Book of Common Prayer. "All I can tell you is what she did," says the narrator of The Last Thing He Wanted.

This is the mandate of the reporter, not the novelist. From fiction something more is expected than an accretion of facts, a record of events. In journalism, history and attitude suffice; we turn to fiction for meaning, for the frisson of self-recognition.

To reject the search for meaning negates the very impetus for writing, which may be why Didion shows us throughout her work glimpses of the writer grappling with her craft. The narrator of The Last Thing He Wanted treats us to a look at her draft notes for the book, with their indecision and false starts. The same device was used in Democracy, when the narrator revealed passages from "the novel I am no longer writing."

Recently in The New Yorker, Paul Berman published an article about Benjamin Linder, the American engineer who was killed by contra forces in the mountains of Nicaragua in 1987. A subtle, yet vivid portrait, Berman's piece provides a graphic portrayal of the mystery and obfuscation that still surrounds Linder's death, of the bitter epic of the war in Nicaragua and covert U.S. involvement. This is the kind of narrative--ambiguous, political and elastic--that Didion has tried to create in The Last Thing He Wanted. But Berman's story about Linder possesses what Didion's fiction does not: resonance; an echo that lasts long beyond the final page.

The Last Thing He Wanted is a novel with a scrupulously contained horizon--flawlessly written but utterly arid. Unfortunately, the qualities that work to such fine effect in Didion's journalism weaken her novels. The highly stylized prose and the stunning juxtapositions--jasmine and jacaranda beside fragmentation grenades and rocket launchers, the corpses and orchids--are beginning to seem shopworn.

The trademark pauses, use of repetition and solemn utterances are in danger of declining into mannerism. The persistent refusal to question is starting to sound like the beer commercial refrain: Why ask why?

As for all those Didion heroines lost in the moral wilderness, eyes shut tight to the coyotes' howl--their stories begin to seem a pointless waste. A blast of meaning in Joan Didion's world would be as welcome as an opened window in an air-conditioned room. It's cold in here, and we've been breathing the same frigid air for far too long.


The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; 227 pages; $23 cloth.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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