The novel opens with the unnamed narrator attempting to recall the events of 1984 and introduces the reader to Elena McMahon, a middle-aged woman who has a history of abrupt career changes and personal redefinitions. This pattern first becomes evident in 1964 when McMahon loses her scholarship to the University of Nevada “and within a week invented herself as a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.” When she meets her future husband four years later, she reinvents herself into his wife.
Soon she becomes one of the pampered, beautiful Los Angelenos, giving and attending parties, being seen by the right people, and raising her only child. After cancer surgery, Elena reinvents herself again, leaving her husband and taking their daughter east. She later secures a job with The Washington Post covering the 1984 presidential campaign, only to drop that job abruptly and search out her estranged father in Florida. The common thread in each of these personal shifts is the absence of cause and effect logic; whim and capriciousness move Elena among the various stages of her life.
Her father assures Elena that his big score is imminent, and when he falls ill she takes his place accompanying a shipment of arms to Costa Rica and then relocates to a Caribbean island in hopes of collecting her father’s fee, Soon she fears she is involved in something sinister, learns her father has died, and warns her former husband that he must take their daughter and hide in California. With an altered passport she cannot return home easily; she takes a job as a social director in a hotel meets Treat Morrison, and is eventually assassinated on the beach.
In this novel, Didion explores the hidden world behind the political looking-glass, the world of conspiracies, assassinations, and quasi-military operations. The immediate context is the Iran- Contra arms affair, but Didion takes aim at a larger target. In the broadest sense, she attempts to uncover the clandestine machinations of governments and their agents who speak the language of liberation but operate for dollars and power and at the expense of average citizens such as Elena McMahon, who in spite of her intelligence is overwhelmed by forces she should have recognized as threatening from the beginning.
Readers of Didion’s four earlier novels will recognize distinct similarities between Elena McMahon and the protagonists of those works. In many ways, she is the typical Didion heroine—edgy, spontaneous, and emotionally bruised. Like Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays (1970), Elena McMahon has seen into the heart of her own darkness and struggles to find some meaning in her life. Both women are accused of being selfish and willful by those closest to them, and both are deeply alienated from everything and everyone, especially their families and their past.
In The Last Thing He Wanted, however, this sense of alienation has been transformed into an anomie induced by a crumbling social facade. In all of Didion’s books, there is an exacting anatomization of the unravelings of the social tapestry. This novel illustrates an important change that began with A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and continued with Democracy (1984)—the nexus between the private and the political experiences. In her earlier novels, Didion’s concern was with the personal and how an individual survived humiliation and a callous world, but the later works have another focus—how the personal slides into or is absorbed by political machinations.
The Last Thing He Wanted reveals an unfortunate change in Didion’s treatment of characters. The supporting cast is uniformly two-dimensional; these are less personages than personality types, and their colors bleed into one another and become indistinguishable. Indeed, the villains—Bob Weir, a nameless Salvadoran, and Wynn Janklow—are threatening or despicable to one degree or another, but they are not memorable. They are simply stock figures marched out to add variety and atmosphere.
Didion has often been praised as a writer keenly attuned to the sound of an individual voice, and her renderings of dialogue are typically precise and telling. Once again, Play It As It Lays is an illustrative case in point, with its multiple narrators telling that story. Maria’s voice is separate from those of Carter, BZ, and Helene, and the reader cannot mistake one for another. In...