A Book of Common Prayer
In the preface to her well-regarded essay collection entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), Joan Didion recounts that the title essay about the subculture of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was the first time she “had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” She continues to investigate this contemporary phenomenon in A Book of Common Prayer, her third and best novel. In this clarification exercise on the contemporary milieu—a world of shorn values, smashed hopes, and harsh realities—Didion through her setting, her central character, and her narrator informs the reader of the desperate state of contemporary life, of the desperate attempts of those who try to live decently on the edge of the yawning void.
Ironically, Didion’s representations of the great cosmic chill usually are set in subtropical climates—Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans—and the setting for A Book of Common Prayer is perhaps the most fitting of any for her themes. Boca Grande squats on the equator, its humid days and nights passing in a monotonous, forgettable succession of seeming changelessness. But change of one sort or another is always occurring—bacteria flourish, reproduce, and die; the natural cycles of innumerable insects continue; rust destroys automobiles and tin roofs; vegetation grows over the $34 million road built into the interior. Much is growing, but much more is rotting, from the vegetation and the cars to the people and their institutions. The country’s history, like its landscape, is utterly forgettable. Governments are overthrown so frequently and with so little meaning that only the disintegrating ruins of the monuments of previous administrations and the memories of a few people attest to their existence. Throughout all the cycles, one senses no evolution, no progressive pattern, no purpose or design to the growth and the rot, a sameness of prodigality and waste. With Boca Grande, then, Didion creates an effective metaphor of the modern environment—a world characterized by great growth and great disintegration but by no design.
To such a country comes Charlotte Douglas in search of asylum, peace, and purpose, in search of a retreat from her history. What better refuge from flux than a world that seems not to change? What better haven from a past than a country that seems to lack one? Charlotte is on the run from emotional involvements—from her former husband, Warren Bogart, a profligate parasite who, unknown to Charlotte, is near death; from her present husband, Leonard, a lawyer who seems too busy with Third World countries and leftist clients to have much time for her; from the newspapers and F.B.I. men who have constantly been hounding her for information concerning her daughter, Marin, a Berkeley dropout turned inchoate bomb-thrower; and from the baby that Charlotte had to replace Marin, a baby who was born prematurely, hydro-cephalic, and who died in the parking lot of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mérida, Mexico. From all of this, Charlotte retreats into a dream of life, a life of delusions which ironically lead her into an accidental entanglement in a political overthrow and her purposeless death. She had not expected this; she had not really anticipated any of the nightmares that afflict her; she had been unprepared for almost everything, especially the equatorial nothingness and absurdity of Boca Grande.
True, “as a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone she had been as a matter of course provided with clean sheets, orthodontia, . . . one brother named Dickie, ballet lessons, and casual timely information about menstruation and the care of flat silver”; but she never developed much clearsightedness. So naïve does Charlotte seem that her typical response to any personal, political, or historical difficulty is that everything will turn out all right in the end. “Immaculate of history, innocent of politics,” possessing instead of knowledge a great faith in the inevitability of progress and “the generally upward spiral of history,” Charlotte Douglas typifies the norteamericana. And her reaction to her own past is typical also. Instead of developing a realistic outlook, Charlotte decides instead to manipulate her history to eliminate thinking of the horrible events of her life; to stay sane, she erases rather than reconciles the pain of her betrayal of her husbands, their betrayal of her, Marin’s disownment of her, and the loss of her baby. Those that she cannot erase, she revises into delusions, myths built from fragments of reality, dreams, lies, and wishes.
Her reaction to Boca Grande is rather typical of her reactions to her past. She refuses to see it as it really is—an absurd, rotting, purposeless world—and attempts to revitalize it: first through letters she tries to sell to The New Yorker about Boca Grande as a “’land of contrasts,’” as the “’economic fulcrum of the Americas,’” as one marked by “the ’spirit of hope’ “; then through her ideas of establishing an annual...
(The entire section is 2090 words.)