THE LAST THING HE WANTED
Didion's fifth novel (Democracy, 1984, etc.) is further proof that she's a better journalist than novelist. This fragmentary, reflexive exercise in fiction is full of annoying narrative gestures--repetitions, self-criticisms--that distract from a plot worthy of a conspiracy-obsessed age. Elena McMahon, the sleepwalking heroine, wanders into international intrigue in the last days of the Cold War. Constantly reinventing herself, she's been a dutiful mother, a supportive wife to a Los Angeles oil mogul, and a Washington Post reporter. Now estranged from her husband, and fed up with the Hollywood social life, she's wrangled a job covering the '84 presidential campaign, but she simply walks away from it when she hears of her mother's death. With her spoiled daughter's complaints ringing in her ears, Elena reluctantly visits her father, an amoral hustler and deal-maker planning his last big score. When his failing health prevents him from running arms to Costa Rica to help resupply the contras, the clueless Elena goes in his stead, not knowing that her father was being set up by a sleazy senator's aide to be the patsy in an assassination plot that would justify further US involvement in Nicaragua. When Elena begins to put together some of the pieces--the belated news of her father's death, the reappearance of a mysterious Salvadoran colonel--she "goes feral," hiding out on an island where she discovers further evidence of American espionage. She eventually escapes, using a fake passport, but on returning home becomes the subject of an investigation by State Department "crisis junkie" Treat Morrison. What neither Morrison nor Elena realizes is that the game set in motion by shadowy elements of the American government is still very much alive. A pinched narrative sacrifices the pleasures of conventional character development, with Didion opting instead for a convoluted and over-the-top exploration of political skullduggery.