12 March 2020

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion



The Last Thing He Wanted is one of my favourite fiction books by Joan Didion. I've read it four times and the reason I return to it over and over again is because I think this book is the best representation of her writing style. I remember being so impressed with the way it was written that I didn't really care that I found the plot incredibly difficult to follow. I was joking with Meg that even on my fourth re-read I still don't really know who did what, but that is absolutely not the point of reading Elena McMahon's story.

The Last Thing He Wanted finds Elena stepping away from many different lives. She walks away from Los Angeles and her ex-husband Win Janklow, and she walks away from her new reporter job while on the middle of a campaign trail. The narrator of the story returns to the idea of "where things started" and Elena walking off the campaign trail certainly feels like the start of this story.

You will notice that participants in disasters typically locate the 'beginning' of the disaster at a point suggesting their own control over events. A plane crash retold will begin not with the pressure system over the Central Pacific that caused the instability over the Gulf that caused the wind shear at DFW but at some manageable human intersect, with for example the 'funny feeling' ignored at breakfast."

Elena leaves the campaign trail and decides to help her father with one last deal. He is clearly suffering from some form of dementia as he cannot remember the fact that Elena's mother - his ex wife - is dead. Its during one of these episodes of dementia that Elena agrees to finish an arms deal her father organized. From here, everything starts to spiral.

Again, I don't want to focus too much on plot because it's not the reason I return to the book so often. I love the way Didion writes Elena's character. Like most Didion heroins, Elena is incredibly passive and remote. This is what disturbed me so much about Dee Rees' Netflix adaptation starring Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon. I do believe that there is a version where Hathaway plays the character right... but instead they chose to play Elena as a sassy, bulldozing reporter. It made me hate the movie only five minutes into it.

I will also quickly say here that the ending was baffling... completely muddling/destroying one of the central aspects of the book - e.g. the relationship between Elena and Treat Morrison (a federal agent attached to her situation).

Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon in Dee Rees's Netflix adaptation
My favourite element of Didion's writing has always been her reportorial prose. I love the way she describes her environment and the details she finds important. A lot of her novels are set in California or abroad in tropical climates. She's written a lot about Hawaii and Miami, and those climates are always hanging over her characters.

Big killer head wave, he remembered. You know the kind. The kind where you step out of the car onto the street and you sink into the asphalt and if you don't move fast you're methane."

It's difficult to tell if the narrator or Elena herself resembles Didion more. I could tell with Dee Rees's movie they were definitely giving Hathaway a Didion-esque look - hair cut to the shoulders and a tan. Like Didion, Elena also has a background in journalism. This is reflected in Elena's diary notes:

They were not exactly the kind of notes a professional writer or reporter might make, but neither were they conventional 'diary' notes, the confessions or private thoughts set down by a civilian. What was peculiar about these entries was that they reflected elements of both modes, the personal and the reportorial, with no apparent distinction between the two."

I know this is lame to admit, but it was this passage that made me want to keep a notebook. I started off just writing bullet points about what I did on the weekend, or what TV show or podcast I started. But now I find myself returning to it more often to write things down and read back on past entries.

Joan Didion
This book is hard to review because I think so much of its value is tied up in Didion's writing style and appreciating that as you go through it. There is one scene between Elena and an arms dealer that involves a dog that still makes me sick to my stomach to think about. This scene happens verbatim in the movie adaptation but feels so much less than the source material.

One of my favourite passages from the book almost describes this feeling perfectly:

The lesson would have been that no one else will ever view our lives exactly as we do: someone else had looked at the snapshots and seen the two children but had failed to hear the music, had failed even to know or care that he or she was lacking the emotional score."

Watching the movie kind of gives you the bare bones, but you completely miss the full picture of Didion's beautiful prose.

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