Joan Didion & Her Characters
Two paradoxes characterize Joan Didion’s writing. The first concerns her subject matter. She is drawn to the timely-verging-on-fashionable-verging-on-chic, to film stars and wealthy indolence and the sexuality of power. But unlike most writers who earn a living on the public’s hunger for the glamorous, she brings a moral consciousness to bear on these subjects: she is acutely judgmental, vulnerable, and can be shocked. This paradox has prompted some reviewers, in discussing her novel about Hollywood, Play It As It Lays (1970), to compare her to Nathanael West. But where West was scolding, Joan Didion is merely grouchy. She gives the impression, particularly in the essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1970), of having come to judge the Zeitgeist but of finding it actually beneath judgment; she is too disgusted even to preach.
The other paradox concerns her way of writing. It balances an objective-seeming precision of language and observed detail against the feeling that a particular person is speaking to us, an intelligent, likable, and utterly subjective, even prejudiced person; and, as it happens, someone who lives in or near a condition of unhysterical despair. In this balance there is an explanation for something that is often said about Joan Didion—that her essays are excellent, whereas her fiction is only just good. In River Run and Play It As It Lays, personal idiosyncracies overrun the writing, and drench it in desperation; in the essays, with their necesssary burden of fact and information, the balance is better kept.
The twin extremes of hopelessness and precision come together in Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator of Miss Didion’s newest novel, A Book of Common Prayer.1 Grace began as a cultural anthropologist, then married into the leading family of a small country in Central America called Boca Grande. Her in-laws are a debauched and violent crew, jostling each other in and out of political office in bloody but phony revolutions. All of this Grace ignores to the extent that she can, intent instead on the study of biochemistry, which she has taken up in preference to anthropology. Having wearied of the ambiguities of human behavior, she has chosen “a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and ‘personality’ absent.” The objects of her research are, first of all, cancer, of which she is dying, but also the chemistry of feeling, of character. What happens in A Book of Common Prayer, on one level, is that someone named Charlotte Douglas arrives in Boca Grande; that Charlotte turns out to be a person of heartbreaking emotional complexity; and that what is complex and touching and profound about her excites and ultimately overwhelms Grace Strasser-Mendana’s will to know, as well as her capacity for knowing.
Charlotte Douglas grew up in the West, “immaculate of history, innocent of politics.” As a child she prayed to “a small wooden angel, carved in Austria . . . that ‘it’ turn out all right, ‘it’ being unspecified and all-inclusive, and she had been an adult for some years before the possibility occurred to her that ‘it’ might not.” By that time she has married Warren Bogart, who had been her teacher at Berkeley. Warren Bogart is obnoxious, viciously articulate, and a drunkard. He is made up of big, bottomless needs and a powerful sexual charm whose claims on Charlotte seem absolute. After a few years she leaves him, taking with her their daughter Marin. She never frees herself from Warren’s enchantment, but she gets married again, in her blank and un-perceiving optimism, this time to Leonard Douglas, a San Francisco lawyer internationally famous not only for his representation of left-wing radicals and rock stars in civil-liberties cases, but also as a legal agent in large international arms deals; the contradiction in this double career is almost un-noticeable in the book’s dark thicket of cultural-political satire.
With Leonard, Charlotte leads, as Warren puts it, not a life but a “life-style,” getting high on marijuana cigarettes that are kept near the bed in a silver box that plays “Puff the Magic Dragon” when the lid is opened. For a while we are in one of those queer, stylish crevices of the 60’s counterculture upon which Joan Didion focused such piercing attention in some of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But later, when Grace is piecing together the shards of Charlotte’s past life, the years while Marin is growing up can hardly be accounted for, so impenetrable is the haze in which Charlotte was then living. “For days at a time her answers to Marin’s questions would . . . strike the child as weird and unsettling, cheerful but not quite responsive. ‘Do you think I’ll get braces in fourth grade?’ Marin would ask. ‘You’re going to love fourth grade,’ Charlotte would answer.”
But so much is background. Because the events with which the book is properly concerned begin on the morning when FBI agents come to Charlotte with the news that Marin, presumed to be away at school, took part in the bombing of the Transamerica building, hijacked a plane to Utah, and is presently in hiding from the law. Joan Didion does not dwell long on the atmosphere of a media circus that surrounds the search for Marin Bogart. What she does give us is apt and telling:
A man who described himself as a disillusioned Scientologist called Charlotte to say that Marin was under the influence of a Clear in Shasta Lake. A masseuse at Elizabeth Arden called Charlotte to say that she had received definitive word from Edgar Cayce via Mass Mind that Marin was with the Hunzas in the Himalayas. The partially decomposed body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave on the Bonneville Salt Flats but the young woman’s dental work differed conclusively from Marin’s.
When, after some weeks, Marin has not shown up, Charlotte leaves Leonard; returns to Warren; shares with him an aimless and dissolute journey through the South; eventually leaves Warren; finally arrives, in flight from a severe complication of personal and social and historical demons, in the airport at Boca Grande. She is forty. “There was the extreme and volatile thinness of the woman. There was the pale red hair which curled in the damp heat and stood out around her face and seemed almost more weight than she could bear.”
As this summary suggests, A Book of Common Prayer is oddly sprawling and out of sequence. Only some of its important action takes place in Boca Grande, while most of it concerns Charlotte’s life in the United States which Grace reports secondhand. Although the novel is “about” Charlotte Douglas, it’s important to see why Miss Didion has established the history and circumstances of her narrator in such detail. Grace’s own story is an allegory of the progress of the liberal, humanistic intelligence in the last twenty years. Out of a background informed by the fashionable cultural relativism of the 50’s, through a disillusioning alliance with political power in the 60’s, Grace emerges in the flat morning light of the present decade with a grim allegiance to secure, empirical systems of information, a will to plot the vagaries of the human individual on a graph of “significant” social and behavioral factors. This is the meaning of Grace’s obsession with understanding Charlotte Douglas: “Give me the molecular structure of the protein that defines Charlotte Douglas,” she writes. But the punch line is that Grace fails. The individual is at once bigger and more mysterious than the mechanistic models that are meant to comprehend her: that is the moral lesson at the center of this book, and at the center, too, of the humanistic sensibility, with its lingering residue of religious faith.
As for Charlotte, the portrait of her that is painted by Grace is of a woman who exists almost completely in the isolation of her own consciousness, and whose experience of others, of what the novel keeps calling “history,” only drives her in deeper. “I think I have never known anyone who led quite so unexamined a life,” writes Grace, which is surely right; but it is also true that we never hear the interior noises of Charlotte’s own mind. It is of special, rather poignant, interest that Joan Didion, whose writing continually reflects a penchant for self-consciousness and introspection, should present so sympathetic a portrait of an “unexamined life.” Through Grace, Miss Didion seems to be working against the grain of her own strongest predilections to signify Charlotte’s dilemma: a woman locked in unconsciousness, lacking even the appropriate vocabulary for cursing God and dying.
It is this taking on of a subject matter not easily assimilable to her own broader tones which makes this novel a better book than Play It As It Lays. Maria, the central figure in that horrific earlier landscape, was in the grip of the monster nothingness, knew it from the beginning, and only got to know it better as the book progressed. It was a novel that could hardly be more anguished, but one curiously complacent, too, about the anguish it depicted; it seemed to deck itself out too gladly in the clichés of the contemporary novel of neurosis: the Hollywood setting, the drug scene, the mental hospital, the hip sexual self-destruction. A Book of Common Prayer, by contrast, provides a suffering heroine for whom we feel more compassion than she is capable of feeling for herself—she embodies Kierkegaard’s unnerving paradox that a person can be in despair and not know it—and the result is that her character is not, like Maria’s, swamped by the novel’s emotional flow. By virtue of this, A Book of Common Prayer separates itself, as Play It As It Lays did not, from that unfortunate genre, the lyrical-precious novel of female desperation.
The mention of Play It As It Lays brings us back to an aspect of Joan Didion’s work which I have already mentioned, the fascination with the glamorous. It is present in the new novel to a certain degree. The “beautiful people” hover in the wings of the story, cropping up in the scenes of Charlotte’s life with Leonard, associated with Gerardo, Grace’s profligate son, and with Warren’s wide-ranging acquaintance. Some of the minor portraits seem vaguely à clef. There is one scene at least in which these glamorous trimmings pay off. Grieving furiously over her loss of Marin “to history,” the one loss her consciousness cannot evade, Charlotte attends a party organized to raise funds for some ambiguous cause. While Leonard dances the limbo on a stage constructed over a pool in Beverly Hills, “an actress who had visited Hanoi” speaks to Charlotte of “the superior health and beauty of the children there”:
“It’s because they aren’t raised by their mothers,” the actress said. “They don’t have any of that bourgeois personal crap laid on them.”
Charlotte studied her wine glass and tried to think of something neutral to say to the actress. She wanted to get up but her chair was blocked by three men who seemed to be discussing the financing of a motion picture, or a war.
“No mama-papa-baby-nuclear-family bullshit,” the actress said. “It’s beautiful.”
War and show business turn into each other in a surreal dance before the eyes of Charlotte, still the child “immaculate” of history and politics. But politics of a theatrical order has also claimed her personally, has taken her child from her—and she herself, in Boca Grande, becomes entangled in a revolution performed, as it were, by marionettes with real guns.
Politics, however, is not what is memorable about this novel; Charlotte Douglas is. Indeed, she is better and larger than the novel she inhabits, and the finest creation in Joan Didion’s fiction so far.
1 Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $8.95.