No one else writes like Joan Didion, and 10 books into her career -- "The Last Thing He Wanted" is her fifth novel -- her spare prose style has calcified into a set of trademark tics. Coolly detached, free of both adjectives and humor and fond of repeated phrasings, Didion's sentences march down the page with the weary, jaded poise of an haute couture model striding into a Burger King.
At its very best, it's a tone you could call Hemingway meets Janet Malcolm, and in the early sections of "The Last Thing He Wanted" Didion uses it to create a real sense of humid, brewing drama; you fall into the book as if into a dream. Set in the mid-1980s, "The Last Thing He Wanted" is a political drama about an enigmatic female Washington Post reporter named Elena McMahon who quits her job and -- through a set of faintly bizarre circumstances -- becomes involved in running illegal Iran-contra arms shipments.
Didion is a bit of a conspiracy buff, but given a choice between her whispery, paranoid minimalism and the kind of blustery, paranoid maximalism that Norman Mailer has injected into his last few political novels, I'll take Didion's approach. Yet, as compulsively readable as "The Last Thing He Wanted" is -- I finished it in one sitting -- the book ultimately feels like a misfire. It spends all its energy cranking out hazy atmosphere, and almost none attending to plot, character or actuality.
One particularly acute problem is that both Elena and the book's narrator -- a writer piecing together her story a decade later -- remain ciphers, even by Didion's standards. Most of what we know about them is dribbled out in disconnected anecdotes. Elena's anguish, for example, is suggested by a scene in which she stands up during an Academy Award dinner in Hollywood and proclaims, "I can't fake this anymore."
The inclusion of that Academy Award dinner scene is telling. Throughout "The Last Thing He Wanted," Didion is fatally enamored with the trappings of political and media power, and tinny sentences abound: "Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going," or, "This was a man generally perceived as a mover, a shaker, a can-do guy, someone who appeared to thrive on negotiation, on dealing..."
In the end, Didion's self-conscious, steam-heated prose becomes self-parodying. She's plumped up her narrative with so much woozily artificial drama that it isn't until the fog machine quits that you realize that there never was any there there.