I could list many books that have made an impression on me; several of them written by Joan Didion. But one book by Didion took me by surprise. It started as an easy read for escapism but as the pages turned it impressed upon my soul a feeling – a weight, a haunt, even – that still resonates months after I returned the completed book to the shelf. The Last Thing He Wanted is a political mystery/thriller – not a genre I’m typically drawn to. It’s neither my favorite nor the most revered of Didion’s works. It was an enjoyable enough read, a refreshing change of pace for me, and reflects Didion’s gift of straightforward yet soulful, staccato storytelling. Yet Didion weaves into her erratic mystery the riveting theme of “why”. The impenetrable question that drives so much of our reflection and life. Why? What led to this? How did this come to be? What parts of my long, sordid history brought me to this point, right here and right now? Motivated me to this action? And most of all, Didion asks, does it even matter?
A character in the novel, while considering omitting from her autobiography the death of her childhood best friend, says: “Because it didn’t actually change my life. I mean I cried, I was sad, I wrote a lot about it in my diary, yes, but what changed?”
The character’s mother (the book’s narrator) reflects in response, “I recall explaining that ‘change’ was merely the convention at hand: I said that while it was true that the telling of a life tended to falsify it, gave it a form it did not intrinsically possess, this was just a fact of writing things down, something we all accepted. I realized as I was saying this that I no longer did.”
The narrator continues, after a tangent, “The business of Elena McMahon, then, is hard for me.
This business of what ‘changed’ her, what ‘motivated’ her, what made her do it.”
That business is hard for me, too.
I’ve spent many long nights and foggy journaling mornings searching for that answer, sure that such shed light would revolutionize my life, convinced that such an answer was the key to unlock my moving forward. Stagnant without it. Struggling, swimming, sinking even, as I tread water on that question of why, what changes me, what motivates.
How did I get here? How did I become who I am? What made me into whatever this I that I have become?
Finding that answer would certainly propel me forward, part the waters, be the wave to crash me onto the shore. For even that kind of movement would be going somewhere. It would get me to land.
As the novel progresses, the narrator reflects on another character, “Treat Morrison himself appeared to have no interest in examining what I am distressed to notice I was choosing to call ‘his formative years.’
…Treat Morrison said nothing for a moment. ‘A lot of people get some big mystical kick out of chewing over things that happened forty, forty-five years ago,’ he said the,. ‘Little sad stories about being misunderstood by their mother or getting snubbed at school or whatever. I’m not saying it’s self-indulgent or self-pitying or any other damn thing. I’m just saying I can’t afford it. So I don’t do it.”
Didion spent 140 pages meandering around the question of “why?” – begging it and making me beg for it, not for the character as much as for myself, my own formidable, formative years – just to throw it out with the dismissive words of an esoteric, elusive cog.
And yet a brilliant cog. Whose statement, while framed in avoidance, actually speaks depths.
I know that “mystical kick” all too well and the vicious cycle of degradations it can lead one on. I know that “chewing over things that happened” and the inevitable jaw ache that follows, bringing no satisfaction to the craving nor soul-thirsting hunger. And I know that the answer to the question “Why?” will not wrap up a story with happy endings nor bring resolution. Because I know that the answer may never come, nor even exist.
And so, Treat Morrison, of all the impotent and uninspiring characters to exist, you have inspired. You have left an impression that this waxen heart desperately craved. You have planted a question that has overgrown and replaced the age-old, endlessly nagging adage of “Why?” with the transformative catharsis of, “Can I afford to contemplate it?”
And with that question comes an answer. A short, simple answer at that. No.