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WHEN HARPER'S MAGAZINE published a segment of Joan Didion's novel, A Book of Common Prayer,it seemed that here was another normally-incisive writer succumbing to just one more California fetish. While the National Enquirer alone had been interested in investigating Henry Kissinger's trash, everybody--and we're talking here about the well-established publishing world--wanted to know about Patricia Hearst's closet sex life and continual menstrual cycle. (The California papers followed this latter issue quite closely and the ever-staid New York Times devoted several columns in its Sunday magazine to the constant period, nail polish and diet of this heiress-turned-urban-guerilla-turned-heiress-again.)
But there is a point shortly after beginning A Book of Common Prayer when it becomes obvious that, notwithstanding Harper's excerpt, this is not just another Patricia Hearst fixation. Indeed, Harper's selection from the book does not do Didion's novel justice. The book centers on a wealthy family--a radical chic lawyer, with a Warhol silk screen of Mao in the living room, rather than a newspaper magnate--and their newly-converted revolutionary daughter, whose rhetoric makes little sense and at best serves to separate her from her wealthy background, the FBI and a steamy, dull, white-washed country in Latin America that undergoes one internecine revolution after another among the one controlling family that owns all the land. But the superficial aspects of the plot are, as in any good novel, mostly secondary. A Book of Common Prayer, like other Didion works, is concerned with much more than surface appearances. It is a novel of the past constantly directing and overwhelming the present, of denial and delusion, of submission and domination and of atomization and dissolution in a world where discussion of the next person to be assassinated do not seem in the least extraordinary.
Grace Strasser-Mendana, slowly dying of cancer, tries, as the sardonic narrator of the book, to understand herself and the increasingly unintelligible world around her. She declares that she will be the witness in history to a California woman and by empirical evidence will piece together Charlotte Douglas's life. It is through this narration that we learn that Charlotte believes the world is peopled with others like herself and, as a result, selectively remembers events to conform to this idea. Charlotte has lost her child, Marin, to history, and this event disrupts the complacency of her life. The newspaper accounts and pictures of Marin--this Patty Hearst-type revolutionary, who speaks over television and radio about the "fascist police" and the "class struggle"--in no way mesh with the sweet personality that Charlotte declares is Marin. Charlotte's selective memory of Marin in recent months protects her from accepting this new person, much as it protects her from ever accepting the possibility that "it" or "things" might not turn out all right in the end.
The realities of death, unhappiness, the sordid side of sex, and poeple using each other, are all victims of this selective memory--the only way in which Charlotte, as a child of a comfortable family in the temperate zone, can come to term with the present. Grace tells us, "she was immaculate of history and innocent of politics." Marin's disappearance is "the only event in Charlotte's life to resist her revisions and erasures." Ultimately, it is Marin who makes Charlotte realize that "it" really does not come out alright.
Charlotte's story--that of a perpetual tourist and outsider even in her own life--is marked by the progression from her first husband, Warren, who is domineering, yet charming and from whom she can never entirely escape, to Leonard, the wealthy lawyer of radical causes, who much more subtly and sympathetically manipulates her, and finally to Boca Grande. This, a banana republic which Charlotte felt, in some dim way, was the "cervix of the world" through which her child, lost of history, would also pass.
Continuing in the pattern of the past that prevented her from seeing the growing radicalization and discontent of her daughter, Charlotte remains unconscious to the realities around her in Boca Grande. She is so concerned with revising the past to fit the dream of a happy American life that she lives oblivious to the dangerous political machinations and rivalries that eventually crush her.
Charlotte's fear, Grace Strasser-Mendana tells us, is that of looking back. The axiom, "Remember Lot's Wife, avoid the backward glance," dictated Charlotte's life until Marin disappeared. And then despite her outward ignorance of the world around her--her desire for this child like protection from life--the past is unwillingly thrust upon her as an explanation for the present complications. But for a person who has always believed that things work out fine in the end, the rising to the surface of past failures is the ultimate blow. "It wasn't the way she thought it was either," Leonard says as he leaves her to what he knows will be her death.
I wasn't the way she thought I was and Marin
wasn't the way she thought Marin was and
Warrren wasn't the way she thought Warren was.
She didn't know any of us.
Like a chant throughout the book, Grace, in her methodical analytical way states, "We all remember what we need to remember." Even empirical evidence--"Give me the molecular structure of the protein which defined Charlotte Douglas," she demands at the book's beginning--is subject to the internal mechanism in each person which attempts to make life more palatable, spoon-feeding it to us bit by bit, memory by memory. The repeated staccato phrases throughout A Book of Common Prayer, like the responsive readings in a hymn book, form the kernels of the emerging past for Charlotte. Like a slightly too-intense light, which reveals the dinginess of a tenement corridor, Didion effectively uses these chorus-like chants and staccato phrases to amplify the thoughts Charlotte is trying to block. They are echoes of the past that climb up into the present. In much the same way that Marin uses revolutionary rhetoric a deny her past, Charlotte uses a process of selective remembering: it is unsurprising then that when that past encroaches on the present it crumbles both women.
THE EFFECTIVENESS of this Greek chorus of thoughts is indicative of the whole of Didion's novel. Written with an exceptional ease and remarkable eye for detail A Book of Common Prayer is, like almost everything Didion writes, greater than its many parts. Didion is a journalist as well as novelist; through simple descriptions she conveys an image and a mood surrounding each character and Boca Grande that is sarcastically humorous--often bitingly so, in a gratifying way--without making the entire novel seem frivolous or lightweight. Although there are problems with A Book of Common Prayer--perhaps a bit too much fun is poked at the adherents of all political movements and the interaction between Grace Strasser-Mendana and Warren by its very complexity is less effective than other points of the novel--it is by far a more impressive and complex book than a mere Patty Hearst story would be. Well, maybe not complex, but certainly of more consequence and interest than any discussion of the menstrual cycle of the spoiled grandaughter of William Randolph Hearst.
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