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. --
...This is the story that Ms. Didion has set out to tell in
The Last Thing He Wanted, a dark, willfully elliptical novel that often reads like a thematic and stylistic distillation of the author's work to date....like all her previous novels, it features an alienated heroine, a woman with a radical sense of detachment, a woman who has trouble connecting the past with the future, her heart with her actions....With each of her novels, Ms. Didion has moved further and further from the realm of the personal toward that murky realm where the private and the political intersect. 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....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. -- New York Times
A political reporter doing her father a favor ends up caught in a tropical conspiracy. (Sept.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Didion's first novel in 12 years, there's plenty of hard travelin from California to Central America, the Caribbean, Washington, and Floridaas the heroine connects Cuba, Iran contra, and JFK's assassination.
Didion brings her long-standing journalistic fascination with covert activities in the Caribbean and Central America to her spare yet mesmerizing fiction. Her newest novel echoes her last, the superb
Democracy (1984), in its portrayal of a stoic woman caught up in a web of intrigue and danger. The year is 1984, and Elena McMahon is burned out. She has survived a bout with cancer, a divorce, and the death of her mother and has already reinvented herself several times over, but she is forced, once again, to adopt a false identity when her father, a quintessential fixer plugged into the deadly world of arms trading, takes ill. A journalist, Elena had been covering the presidential campaign, but she walks off the job, flies to Miami, and lands in the eye of a hurricane of deals, counterdeals, and political subterfuge, a storm of lies and power plays set in motion by the war in Nicaragua. Didion is in top form here: her distinctive narrative voice has never been edgier or more cryptic and full of pain, and her irony and suspense have never been sharper. Her oddly remote, at-risk characters communicate in terse, riddling exchanges, and descriptions of tropical outposts are rendered with unsettling efficiency. As this tale of evil for evil's sake unfolds (one player describes himself as a "crisis junkie. . . in it for the buzz" ), we recognize Didion's genius for portraying the type of slippery, behind-the-scenes people who actually shape history.
Didion's fifth novel (
Democracy, 1984, etc.) is further proof that she's a better journalist than novelist. This fragmentary, reflexive exercise in fiction is full of annoying narrative gesturesrepetitions, self-criticismsthat distract from a plot worthy of a conspiracy-obsessed age.
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 piecesthe belated news of her father's death, the reappearance of a mysterious Salvadoran colonelshe "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.
"Gripping...Didion at her finest." —
USA Today"Simultaneously lucid and surreal . . . the result is entrancing." — The New Yorker"Remarkable. . . . Didion has created a menacing world where the reader is held hostage." — Los Angeles Times"Dark detail, understatement and intelligence work their astonishing magic." — The New York Times Book Review