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In that latter year Elena McMahon walks off the presidential campaign she has been covering for a major newspaper to do a favor for ...
In that latter year Elena McMahon walks off the presidential campaign she has been covering for a major newspaper to do a favor for her father. Elena's father does deals. And it is while acting as his agent in one such deal—a deal that shortly goes spectacularly wrong—that she finds herself on an island where tourism has been superseded by arms dealing, covert action, and assassination. The Last Thing He Wanted is a tour de force—persuasive in its detail, dazzling in its ambiguities, enchanting in its style.
No one else writes like Joan Didion, and 10 books into her career -- The Last Thing He Wanted is her fifth novel -- her spare prose style has calcified into a set of trademark tics. Coolly detached, free of both adjectives and humor and fond of repeated phrasings, Didion's sentences march down the page with the weary, jaded poise of an haute couture model striding into a Burger King.
At its very best, it's a tone you could call Hemingway meets Janet Malcolm, and in the early sections of The Last Thing He Wanted Didion uses it to create a real sense of humid, brewing drama; you fall into the book as if into a dream. Set in the mid-1980s, The Last Thing He Wanted is a political drama about an enigmatic female Washington Post reporter named Elena McMahon who quits her job and -- through a set of faintly bizarre circumstances -- becomes involved in running illegal Iran-contra arms shipments.
Didion is a bit of a conspiracy buff, but given a choice between her whispery, paranoid minimalism and the kind of blustery, paranoid maximalism that Norman Mailer has injected into his last few political novels, I'll take Didion's approach. Yet, as compulsively readable as The Last Thing He Wanted is -- I finished it in one sitting -- the book ultimately feels like a misfire. It spends all its energy cranking out hazy atmosphere, and almost none attending to plot, character or actuality.
One particularly acute problem is that both Elena and the book's narrator -- a writer piecing together her story a decade later -- remain ciphers, even by Didion's standards. Most of what we know about them is dribbled out in disconnected anecdotes. Elena's anguish, for example, is suggested by a scene in which she stands up during an Academy Award dinner in Hollywood and proclaims, "I can't fake this anymore."
The inclusion of that Academy Award dinner scene is telling. Throughout The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion is fatally enamored with the trappings of political and media power, and tinny sentences abound: "Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going," or, "This was a man generally perceived as a mover, a shaker, a can-do guy, someone who appeared to thrive on negotiation, on dealing..."
In the end, Didion's self-conscious, steam-heated prose becomes self-parodying. She's plumped up her narrative with so much woozily artificial drama that it isn't until the fog machine quits that you realize that there never was any there there. -- Salon
Elena McMahon, the sleepwalking heroine, wanders into international intrigue in the last days of the Cold War. Constantly reinventing herself, she's been a dutiful mother, a supportive wife to a Los Angeles oil mogul, and a Washington Post reporter. Now estranged from her husband, and fed up with the Hollywood social life, she's wrangled a job covering the '84 presidential campaign, but she simply walks away from it when she hears of her mother's death. With her spoiled daughter's complaints ringing in her ears, Elena reluctantly visits her father, an amoral hustler and deal- maker planning his last big score. When his failing health prevents him from running arms to Costa Rica to help resupply the contras, the clueless Elena goes in his stead, not knowing that her father was being set up by a sleazy senator's aide to be the patsy in an assassination plot that would justify further US involvement in Nicaragua. When Elena begins to put together some of the pieces—the belated news of her father's death, the reappearance of a mysterious Salvadoran colonel—she "goes feral," hiding out on an island where she discovers further evidence of American espionage. She eventually escapes, using a fake passport, but on returning home becomes the subject of an investigation by State Department "crisis junkie" Treat Morrison. What neither Morrison nor Elena realizes is that the game set in motion by shadowy elements of the American government is still very much alive.
A pinched narrative sacrifices the pleasures of conventional character development, with Didion opting instead for a convoluted and over-the-top exploration of political skullduggery.