1977, Books, Fiction

A Book of Common Prayer (1977) by Joan Didion

I’m in marketing. But I cannot for the life of me understand the cover of my copy of this novel, “published in Canada.” (Actually distributed by PaperJacks and published in New York. Anyway…) The cover tells me it’s “A story of passion” and there is an elegant woman’s hand in soft focus, holding a lighter. It’s “about a woman’s last and only desire.” On the back is the woman’s face and upper body in a dress with a plunging neckline, and a quote from Cosmo. The implication is clear: this will be an erotic journey. And, um, that’s not at all what this novel is about. I can’t recall another novel that I have read in my adult life that has had such a massive disconnect between the cover and the text. At least, I can’t remember one.

It’s been years since I read Play It as It Lays and I honestly don’t remember it well enough to compare the two books. This one is less obscure about its intent, I think, but it still manages to be hard to parse. Didion’s prose reminds me a bit of a far less surrealistic and willfully strange Richard Brautigan, in its terseness and its repetition, if nothing else. (The Brautigan comparison feels really weird to me, but I honestly cannot currently think of another novelist who writes with both such terseness and poetic repetition of phrases. I’m sure there are better comparisons given how different their subjects are.) I really like the way she writes in this book and I wish I liked the book more.

So, the first thing I want to mention is how funny it is. Again, the cover of the original Canadian edition that I read gives you literally zero indication that this book will make you laugh out loud. Nor does Didion’s reputation, as far as I’m aware. But this book is very funny. How much you can take some of this humour, though, depends on how you feel about the setting.

Because one of the two biggest problems with the novel is that setting: a made-up central American country (that may nor may not be near Panama, actually in South America or even in the Caribbean). That country is a parody or real countries and I suspect that someone from the region reading this may not take kindly to Didion’s depiction. It feels very much like the view of the very kind of norteamericano that Didion’s narrator is trying to figure out. The charitable view – the one I have taken – is that Didion’s parody of a small Central American nation that has coups constantly is actually, in part, a satire of the norteamericano view of such nations. But that might be too charitable. Regardless, it allows me to laugh without feeling guilty.

The book is a chronicle of a woman dying of cancer, who is taking to make sense of an utterly incomprehensible woman who comes to her country and has an affair with her son. It appears to be about our inability to understand the absurd, the failure of our conventional knowledge tools to deal with people (and situations) who actually exist. (Again, not what the cover of the Canadian edition promises, is it?) As such, I think it does a pretty good job, with a narrator who appears to observe more than she interacts, and with a main character who really is impossible to understand. (How can she be both so clueless and so unbelievably talented at certain practical things? How can she leave Leonard for Warren?) Someone like this undoubtedly exists, in less extreme form, in the world at any point.

But there is something unsatisfying about the whole thing. That, surely, is the point but it’s also kind of frustrating, especially given how attached to the narrator I got by the end of the book. I wonder if the repetition and terseness of the prose ultimately fails Didion in part 6, if there was some other way of ending the novel, with the same conclusion but with more of an event and less internal reflection. (That may undercut the message of the novel, I guess.)

As with Play It as It Lays, I find myself liking so much of the book but getting annoyed at little stylistic things, mostly close to the end. And I think that it’s one of those novels that is close to, but not actually great. There’s potential here, lots of it. And it is really quite funny (albeit darkly so). But there’s something in the execution that leaves me wanting something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Still worth your time, though, if you’re interested in funny novels about how we can’t really ever know anything.


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