The 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.