Book review / Obscure objects of desire

Carole Angier cracks a code and finds a cipher

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion, Flamingo, pounds 15.99

Know what this book is like? It's like this. Full of short lines. Repeated over and over.

If you put them together they make short paragraphs. Not bad paragraphs - but not breath-taking ones either. The trick doesn't work. Look! it says. So what do you see? That there's less to this book than meets the eye.

This is a shame, because Joan Didion was a great reporter of the US scene. Which she still is: The Last Thing He Wanted is about a CIA gun-running scam, told by a Washington reporter. So there's good CIA-talk, like Ap Tech (Appropriate Technologies) for LDCs (Lesser Developed Countries); and good Washington-talk, like young senators being "lean mean and good to go". There's also a rather interesting heroine: a middle-aged, ex-society hostess, to whom there's more than meets the eye. And there's an interesting relationship between her and her father, a mean old villain whom we'd love to hate but can't, because Didion makes him so real, with his fading memory and his pathetic, wicked hopes for a last big deal.

These are the good things; but they're not enough. Elena McMahon's relationship with her father is minor. More important is the romantic one with Treat Morrison, troubleshooter. Didion tells us so ("they knew each other, understood each other, recognised each other" etc).

But here there's not just less than meets the eye, there's nothing. Treat is a cipher; he and Elena only talk twice, and only meet halfway through. When the narrator says at the end "I want these two to have been together all their lives," the gap between the response expected and the response earned is so wide that the whole novel falls into it.

But it had lost me long before. I get the intention ("I wanted the connections to materialise for you as they eventually did for me"), and I know how hard that is to do. The Last Thing He Wanted doesn't do it. I hadn't a clue what was going on until nearly the end. And I don't buy the narrator's pretentious excuses, either - that "traditional dramatic line" is "a trying conceit", that she's "lost patience" with "the conventions of the craft". Lose patience with the craft, baby, and you lose readers.

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