The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

lastthingThe dull and overwrought title, the fuzzy monochrome cover art dominated by letters, not to mention the plot and published date (1996) delineates this book as a certain kind of novel, native to the late 80s and 90s. The political-thriller involving shady arms deals and some person or persons just caught in-between. The American government is corrupt. Parts of it anyway. But it’s a sophisticated hands-off puppetmaster corruption. Bad things happen. People in third world countries die. American power and its politicians’ personal wealth increases.*

Yet, this story is hardly rote or typical. Joan Didion wrote it. The writing, as always, is superb. Even through the cynical lense of 2013, the events of 1984 as translated through 1996 are truly abominable. That the topic feels slightly dated may not be because it is a conception of American imperialism circa 1996, but that we have seen the process played out so often in the interim that it has become obvious and everyday.

The writing itself, told through a framing story of a reporter putting together the story many years later, is sparse and enamored with repetition. Didion observes the doublespeak and murky insubstantiality of political speak in interviews and speeches. Then repeats segments of it, over and over. She may go a little overboard, but the effect and pacing gives the novel a recursive feel. All of this has happened / is happening / will happen. Again and again.

Like Play it as it Lays, and, I suspect, most-if-not-all of Didion’s novels, the protagonist, Elena McMahon, is a woman becoming unhinged. The writing conveys an overpowering anxiety, whilst Elena maintains an aura of perfect control. Didion uses tricks like telling us when she (Elena)  has stopped crying without ever telling us she had began. Or giving us a running record of how many hours it has been since she has last eaten. Again, like Play it as it Lays, the protagonist confronts a personal emptiness; they try to invoke meaningfulness through their family, their daughter, their ex-husband. Largely unsuccessfully. They have become too isolated by society, too absorbed with the abyss.

 

*As the novel’s central scandal is the Iran-Contra affair, this isn’t just cheap drama but an affirmation of the truth — There were virtually no consequences to all involved, and least of all to those in the highest positions.

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My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

mynameisredIstanbul. 1591. A miniaturist is murdered and his colleagues are implicated. There’s chapters from the perspective of the man who will be called murderer as well as those by three master illustrators of which he is almost definitely one. The mystery itself is not the focus, the philosophy is. More on that later. A man called Black returns to Istanbul after twelve years and is thrust into the hunt for the murderer and also back into the arms of a former crush. What follows is a perplexing romance-less romance, that occasionally borders on hilarity, and whose context and cohesion is only revealed on the very last page.

This book is all over the place. At times, I thought it was excellent. At other times, simply getting to the next page seemed an insurmountable task. The structure rotates first person narrators including dogs, trees, and the color red. The first chapter header is I am a Corpse. They are brief and flowing. Until about sixty percent of the way through when they become tens of pages long and plodding.

The central philosophical thrust is the difference between Eastern and Western styles of painting and illustration in the sixteenth century. Europe (the Franks) were accelerating into realism, painting portraits that were immediately identifiable as their subject. Eastern painting was more representative and abstract: I don’t want to be a tree. I want to be it’s meaning. Illustrating involved repainting the work of old masters, attempting to mute personal style, and using staple images to represent people and ideas. There would be a generic sultan template, rather than a painting looking like an actual sultan. The latter would be a hubristic affront to the vision of Allah as would a painter leaving a signature on the painting itself. Personal style was prohibited (but inevitable).

The cast of characters gets drawn into this conflict as the current Sultan commissions a work painted in the Frankish style — it will conclude with a completely realistic portrait of said Sultan as well as tricks of perspective and shading that had barely penetrated the East in the sixteenth century. The culture clash is what triggers the murder that puts the plot in motion.

This is fascinating. It’s a conflict I had never considered or thought about before, shamefully considering the western version the default. But this too is wronged by the book’s sprawling excess. The theme is repeated ad nauseum. I lost track of how many times the illustrated tale of Husrev and Shirin was retold. There’s a really good book somewhere inside My Name is Red that may have surfaced with severe editing. The actual result is an alright book with major ups and downs.