The Last Thing We Expected

Joan Didion’s latest novel actually works.

The Last Thing He Wanted

By Joan Didion

(Alfred A. Knopf; 227 pages; $23)

Joan Didion the journalist is a great believer in stories. Joan Didion the novelist has a habit of distrusting them. In her essays, she has confidently found narrative everywhere–in the worship of John Wayne, in the empty governor’s mansion in California, in the Central Park jogger’s fate. But in her fiction, Didion gets the jitters at the mere thought of spinning out a tale. The anxious narrators of her disjointedly elliptical novels are always interrupting, challenging, undercutting themselves. By fits and starts: that is how they write, a stylized stuttering that has become Didion’s trademark delivery. That is also how her characters live. The Didion protagonist is a woman adrift in history, her own and America’s.

Her new novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, is about–what else?–a woman adrift in history, her own and America’s. Elena McMahon, given to “fast walks and clean starts,” fits the mold of her predecessors, sensitive yet impassive females proficient at forgetting and at never looking far ahead. She has learned how to evade her past, like Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays (1970) and Charlotte Douglas in A Book of Common Prayer (1977), who cope with crisis by living only “in the now,” never risking “the backward glance.” Elena, a course of radiation treatments for breast cancer behind her, has distanced herself from her dying mother, her rich ex-husband, her resentful daughter. Now crisscrossing the country covering the 1984 presidential campaign for the WashingtonPost, she feels “a fatigue near vertigo” at the daily round of spin, counterspin, rumors, denials. Like Inez Victor, the wife of a vacuous politician in Democracy (1985), she is quickly mastering a “capacity for passive detachment.” In fact, on the day when the action of the novel begins, she walks off the campaign, without a clue as to what she plans to do next.

The Last Thing He Wanted also features a self-consciously intrusive narrator–nothing new here, either. This time, the uneasy voice is that of a nameless California journalist who has written about administration policy in Central America during the 1980s (she could, in other words, be Joan Didion herself). The novel unfolds in the cinematic style that Didion has made her own: flashbacks, flash-forwards, crosscuts, staccato bursts of dialogue, now and then “a montage, music over.” The quest to assemble the shards of experience, too, is by now familiar. One woman, the narrator, cross-examines the inscrutable life of another woman, Elena McMahon, hoping but not really expecting to find meaning in it.

In short, The Last Thing He Wanted looks like proof of what you may have suspected for some time: that for all its restlessness about form, Joan Didion’s fiction is formulaic–even contrived. The exhilarating surprise of her new novel is that in it, she masters one of the most contrived forms of all, the thriller. Followers of Didion’s studiously anticlimactic, fragmented fiction will find it hard to believe, but her fifth novel has perfect pitch and pace, and is hauntingly hard to put down.

The truth is that suspense and plot, though never before part of the technique of Didion’s fiction, have always been its subject. Novels are where she frets about narrative, its possibilities and deceptions. Her protagonists are enigmas–to themselves, the reader, the narrator, and, not least, the mysterious men who hover at the edge of their lives, in love with them. These male figures are plotters in a dimly lit world where the CIA, corporate powers, criminals, and small-time schemers do deals, stage coups, order up murders. To what end they maneuver has never been clear, and the women, who in their remote way are drawn to them, can’t bring themselves to care. The point has been that the suspense is endless, that there is finally no meaningful plot. Didion’s parables about anomie in post-Kennedy-era America have implied that once history is forgotten, identity dissolves and conspiracy–and the suspicion of it–is the only guide.

In The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion gets to the bottom of the mystery for once, and a parable that had long since begun to seem world-weary becomes unexpectedly gripping. Cut loose from the scripted charade of the campaign beat, Elena McMahon gets caught up in the machinations of one of those male dealers in dangerous merchandise, her father, Dick McMahon. In fact, completely against type, she acquires an active role in the operation.

Another “clean start” for Elena, this one is launched in a customary Didion daze. Elena barely knows what she is doing when she buys a ticket to see her father in Miami, though then it dawns on her that she wants to persuade him of something that he, like Elena herself, seems to be having trouble absorbing: that her mother–his ex-wife–is now dead. When the old man gets sick soon after her arrival, the daughter who missed her mother’s funeral has a chance to make amends for a lifelong habit of aloofness. (Finally, a narrator who makes a motive clear!) Filling in for her father on his latest deal, she accompanies a shipment of arms in a Lockheed L-100 from Miami to somewhere in Costa Rica, where she has been told she will receive payment of $1 million. “The million-dollar score, the million-dollar pop, the million-dollar payday,” is the way Dick McMahon puts it to her in a febrile panic. This is the “major deal” he has been awaiting all his life.

Of course, that is only the beginning of the story–and by the time you’ve pieced this much together, the plot has deepened to involve Treat Morrison, United States ambassador-at-large, and American policy toward the Nicaraguan contras. Elena McMahon has been propelled into a demimonde where, as the narrator puts it in a knowing pastiche of official jargon, those “trying to create a context for democracy” are “maybe getting [their] hands a little dirty in the process or just opting out, letting the other guy call it.” This is the realm where history–such as it is, Didion believes–gets made, “exclusively and at random by people like Dick McMahon” and his much more ruthless higher-ups.

Scrutinized from the ground, which is where the narrator and Elena McMahon are, this history is not as random as it might seem. It’s an eerie blend of careful planning and pure chance, impromptu schemes and long-running designs. As she plays out the process of converting “humanitarian resupply” into “lethal resupply,” Didion seems to allude (as she did in her book Miami) to the theory that CIA-trained anti-Castro Cubans have been at work in more than a few dubious American exploits. While the ambassador on an island near Nicaragua prepares to bring in the Special Forces in case of a “full-scale effort,” shadier men with terrorist friends and lots of experience in international subterfuge are busy plotting with “the other guy” to make such an “effort” occur. So is a slick congressional foreign-policy aide, college buddy to the sons of Cuban exiles and Central American ambassadors. The plot happens to be an assassination, in which Elena McMahon soon figures.

Didion, in other words, has written a fast-paced story, not just her usual series of fractured “stories.” As the narrator explains: “Every moment could be seen to connect to every other moment, every act to have logical if obscure consequences, an unbroken narrative of vivid complexity.” It is not overarching moral or political meaning that Didion has suddenly discovered. No historically significant struggle of good against evil has dawned in her America, where a frontier ethos has long since declined into corruption and cynicism. It is emotional meaning that she registers, with a vivid simplicity and in the unlikeliest of places. Didion has always been an expert on coolness, numbness, in hot climates. This time, at the heart of a carefully constructed thriller is a romance, which is no less tragic–in fact, is more tragic–for being oblique. It is born of another of those fated yet fortuitous connections in Didion’s disorienting world, this one between two people (Elena McMahon and Treat Morrison) who “were equally remote.”

As she tries to decipher the convoluted course of her Central American adventure, Elena McMahon, “not one of those who saw in a flash how every moment could connect,” discovers memory and imagination–faculties that Didion’s previous heroines did their best to deny. She has exchanged a hollow life for a “heightened life,” and has tried to “comprehend all its turns, get its possibilities.” People who do that, the narrator observes, “are at heart storytellers.” Didion should know, after three decades of weaving her intricate essays. In The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion the novelist finally gives in to the narrative urge.