Juanita Rice's Reviews > A Book of Common Prayer

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion
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Mar 05, 12

bookshelves: fiction
Read in February, 2012


A Book of Common Prayer, although it is Joan Didion's third novel, is a relatively early book (1977) for she is still working today in 2012. What I enjoy most about it is what I also loved about her later book Democracy : a distinctive style that orchestrates and shapes, using white space as silence. She herself has written about her fixation on arrangements of words, on sentences themselves.

Didion also communicates essentials about characters through a focus on externals: actions, words spoken, setting, objects, appearances. A $600 handbag with a broken clasp, for instance, speaks about the main character here: Charlotte Douglas. In both books Didion creates a special tone of narration too, that of an intelligent and insightful observer.. It is an investigative voice, of someone who knows instinctively that her presence colors what she sees. For the narrator is a woman, but with almost nothing of conventional "womanliness" or, certainly, "femininity" as that word is used to imply shallowness, timidity, giddiness, or prying. It is fascinating how seldom both narrator and main character are women. In Democracy I often forgot the gender of the narrator, or rather, and more interestingly, I would slip into the peculiar relationship with reading in which narration just "is" male after a long history of reading books almost exclusively by men: the narrator is a sidekick, a Watson, a historian or investigator like a Marlow, or unnamed and only male only because the author is.

In Common Prayer, the narrator is definitely a character; she has a name, a class, a singular history, and family relationships with other characters; still, she remains free of the feminine. A 60-year-old widow with extensive financial control of a wealthy family in the small oligarchy of a Central American country, she drily regrets her inability to like her adult son very much. We learn that she renounced a career in anthropology because (is this a Didion trope?) it became meaningless: "Let me go further," she says. "I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all." So she married the elder son of a planter family in the fictional Boca Grande (maybe modeled on El Salvador, which Didion will later visit at the height of the death squads and atrocities of Roberto D'Aubuisson in 1982). All of this is disclosed early in tidy unemotional prose.

To Boca Grande comes Charlotte Douglas, mother of an 18-year-old daughter and owner of the said $600 purse, a particularly vacuous presence at first. Although tourists are not uncommon, Charlotte catches the attention of the narrator Grace Strasser Mendana, partly because Charlotte's visa is on a "special-attention" U.S. State Department list.

Here is how the book begins:

I will be her witness.
That would translate sere su testigo.
. . . .
Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she
traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child
to 'history' and another to 'complications'. . . ..
. . . .
She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course the
story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and
paregorina, but only for the living.

That this summary is entirely inadequate is perhaps Grace's point; as anthropologist she had "stopped believing observable activity defined anthropos."

Interestingly, much of what happens to fill in the story of Charlotte Douglas occurs far from the narrator's observation, again as in Democracy. The scenes that are background, the cracked sidewalks, the weather, and especially the extenuating circumstances are written in lively present-action dramatization, realistically, word for word of blistering exchanges between witty educated persons. Little time is spent on what Charlotte felt or thought; Didion writes mostly what Charlotte says and does, what those around her do and say, but we can definitely surmise. "Charlotte did not open her eyes." "Charlotte stood up." 'She's overwrought,' Charlotte heard Warren say as she fled the room."

The powerful hook of the story, especially in 1977 on the west coast after Patty Hearst and SLA news, is how Charlotte "lost one child to history": two FBI men arrive at her home in San Francisco one morning and show her a picture of her eighteen-year-old daughter and four others setting a pipe bomb at San Francisco's Transamerica building, after which the five hijacked a plane and disappeared.

The scene in which Charlotte receives this news affected me deeply as she tries to connect this "pitiless revolutionist" they talk about with her recollections of her child. She insists they are wrong; her daughter is skiing at Squaw Valley "Or so Charlotte tried to tell the fat FBI man." When Marin's father (the first man she left) arrives in San Francisco, Charlotte's tensions ratchet up to higher gear. Later Grace will try to get Charlotte to Boca Grande before "all hell breaks loose," for revolution is a hot topic not only in the U.S. : Grace's family will play different sides in a particularly chaotic upheaval there.

The book parallels the chaos in Charlotte's life before she arrives in Central America with a full picture of the utter dysfunctions in Boca Grande's ruling party—neurotic wives, sociopath brothers (only two of four survive), their mistresses, their boredom, their luxury, their power, and their "touchiness." Much is also made of Charlotte's class: "as a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone," she took for granted orthodontics, living grandparents, ballet lessons and how to care for "flat silver." In her prayers she had asked that "it" turn out all right and fully expected "it" would. "Until later," Didion adds. She had faith in "thrift, industry, and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history." But, Grace observes: "She was immaculate of history, innocent of politics."

A word more about style and structure: it is written in undesignated parts One through Six, major segments quite different in length, style and structure. Part Three, for instance, is only ten pages long with three smaller segments. The Sixth part is also ten pages long, but it has five sections, ranging from a half-page to just over two pages long, and with ample white space between parts. Other parts are longer: 87, 68, and 35 pages each, with six to nineteen sections. The structural variety reads like a screenplay—is it incidental that Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne worked on a number of movies and were Hollywood Insiders? There are long leisurely realistic scenes, long lively tense scenes, short takes, flashbacks, fades and jump cuts. Moments leap out. Scenes! Here, however, words themselves take on weight and tactile presence without actors.

It would be fascinating to compare this book with Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm. In Atwood's book the suffering of the people of a Caribbean island in revolution is the fulcrum driving a Canadian woman to grow up and face herself. In Didion's tropical country there seem to be no people, no populace. The "guerillas" are an explicit joke, pawns of different factions of the ruling class. They will be "picked off one by one," but they are never people. Grace doesn't notice that Charlotte is trying to be perhaps one of the people through volunteering at a clinic. Grace only tells us about the people of her class, those of Charlotte's class. And Didion doesn't explain Charlotte's motivation either. In Didion's Salvador (1982) which I am reading at the moment she will write of "the population that make $750 per capita." But they will not really exist, I fear. For her, or for her reader.

In George Orwell's essay "Marrakech"(1938-39) he writes about the day he finally noticed what he'd been seeing every day but not seeing: a string of tiny old women carrying heavy loads of firewood past his lodgings. He muses that he had noticed at once upon his arrival in Morocco the "abominable overloading of small donkeys," noticed, and been shocked, incensed. But, he points out, [European] visitors never do really "see" brown people, a blindness that all colonial empires depend upon. How else could tourists visit Africa and Asia (in the U.S., I would add Mexico and Central America) except to go and surround themselves with their own kind, in privileged isolation, without seeing the lives, and the deaths, around them?

I think Didion misses some of this sensibility in her Grace-Strasser-like cynicism, neurosis, privilege, isolation—whatever it is. But she writes with keen insight into the suffering of women in the privileged classes, and her books are beautifully orchestrated and somewhat terrifying.










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