A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

I will try to be Joan Didion's witness regarding A Book of Common Prayer.  It is a great, ambitious novel.  It is not common.  Even despite its title, none of its characters have a prayer.  A not uncommon trait afflicting the characters of Joan Didion's novels. That's just Joan being Joan. Cynical and ironic. Master of irony.  Cynic's mistress.  Joan Didion.  Making me ruefully laugh calling her third novel A Book of Common Prayer.  Amen.

My first ed., but alas, a 4th printing,
as a 1st printing has so far eluded me
A trait uncommon, I should amend, in the three novels I've so far read of the five novels of Joan Didion.  The other novel's by Joan Didion I've read being A Book of Common Prayer's predecessor, Play It As It Lays (1970), and Prayer's follow-up, Democracy (1984).   Perhaps they are common traits in the two novels by Joan Didion I've not yet read; her debut, Run River (1963) and most recent, though published nearly two decades ago around the time Clinton began his second term, The Last Thing He Wanted (1996).  Maybe the characters inhabiting those novels have prayers.  But I doubt it. Knowing Joan Didion as I do from what I've read by her, I know she plays it dark. Dims the lights on hopes.  Draws the blinds on dreams.  Embodies delusions.

Or wait.  I'm being unfair to Joan Didion.   Joan Didion's characters, I should clarify, by their choices, have ruined their hopes and dreams, remained true to their delusions, and not Joan Didion.  I need to make that distinction clear.  I do not want to make the same mistake as Charlotte Douglas, waning starlet and society girl who is A Book of Common's Prayer's star.  Or more precisely, A Book of Common's Prayer's black hole.  The black hole whom, according to the narrator of the novel, Grace Strasser Mendana, "did not make enough distinctions in her life". Grace Strasser Mendana would know.  She is a scientist, but also "a student of delusion" investigating its very DNA.  A Book of Common Prayer is essentially Grace's case study of Charlotte Douglas' puzzling demise.  But it's also a study of guilt.  Grace's guilt, not Charlotte's.  But that is the subject perhaps of another novel by Joan Didion, maybe of Democracy, or maybe not.

We know Charlotte is already dead on page one.

We know that Grace will soon be dead a few pages later, after learning that Charlotte is dead and that the narrative is a remembrance.  A memorial paying homage to delusion, to Charlotte  "who dreamed her life."  Who believed even as machine guns got her in their sights, that everything in the country of Boca Grande would turn out all right.

We know, as I already said, though it bears repeating, that no one has a prayer in A Book of Common Prayer.  Pardon my redundancy, but Joan Didion says the same words and phrases twice, thrice, four times.  Sometimes, Joan Didion says the same words and phrases twice, thrice, four times in italics.  When Joan Didion says the same words and phrases twice, thrice, four times in italics, she is not merely doing so for emphasis.  But to characterize the longing or the loss anchored in a person's memory.  Or for social or political commentary.  Or to set a brooding mood.  To evoke gravitas in her prose.  For effect, powerful effect, her poignant motifs.  Much has been made of Joan Didion's much-emulated style.  Ask Bret Easton Ellis, Joan Didion's copycat in style.  Or don't.  He might not like being reminded that the style he's made famous was never his to begin with.  But Joan's.  Read Joan Didion yourself and see.  Be Joan's witness.

We know that even those who do not die in A Book of Common Prayer will not survive.  I like that paradox.  It is a representative paradox of the kind Joan Didion might write in order to imply something weightier than words can imply.  The power in Joan Didion's prose is evident beyond her singular style and terse technique.  How she craftily imbues her prose with implication after implication makes her svelte novels feel as heavy in your hands as doorstopper tomes.  One broods, as much as reads, Joan Didion.

We know that Charlotte and her first husband, Warren Bogart, have an estranged daughter, Marin, raised by Charlotte and her second husband, Leonard Douglas, wanted by the F.B.I. for her terrorism.  She's nineteen in most of Grace Strasser Mendana's remembrance of Charlotte Douglas. Nineteen, the same age as the youngest of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  But Marin didn't blow up the Boston Marathon.  Marin blew up the Transamerica building in San Francisco.  Left behind a tape explaining why.  The way a rebel parrot might explain why on a tape its left behind.

"All class enemies must suffer exemplary punishment.  When the fascist police think we are near we will be far away.  When the fascist police think we are far away we will be near ... We shall reply to repression with liberation.  We shall reply to the terrorism of the dictatorship with the terrorism of the revolutions," Marin intoned, and with a lisp we are told by Charlotte, from the tape.

We know that Marin caught the pungent whiff of revolucion when her parents lived in the fictitious, Central American nation of Boca Grande and let the house staff tend to her rearing.  Citizens of Boca Grande raising a norte americana child. Countries of constant rot and impending riot.

We know Marin's parents, Charlotte and Leonard, were probably arms dealers disguised as U.S. diplomats.  Except Charlotte, being Charlotte, wasn't cognizant of the fairly obvious fact that her second husband, Leonard, was involved in shady back room dealings with the power brokers of Boca Grande, supplying weapons and obfuscation under the watchful auspices of the U.S. government attempting to install by dubious means another regime in Central America.  Read Salvador sometime, Didion's later take on moral rot and political riot in Central America.

Back cover of first ed., circa 1977
We know that Marin had gotten herself permanently high on the anti-imperialist propaganda that festered down there in Boca Grande.  Propaganda that was fueled in part by Marin's stepfather, a veritable tentacle of the U.S. military, that man, Leonard.  Idealistic Marin, looking for a just cause to believe in but finding none in her parents, adopted new parents -- an ideology -- and chose the local screeds of "the Brazilian guerilla theorist named Marighela" as her textbooks and personal guides.  In lieu of higher institutional learning, Marin began (covertly herself -- like stepfather, like stepdaughter) a crash course in guerilla tactics, taught behind the scenes and between the lines of A Book of Common Prayer, a philosophy taught by Grace Strasser Mendana's warring brother and son, men on opposing political sides in Boca Grande; men that Marin's mother, Charlotte, shacked up with -- both of them -- in the days leading to her death, when civil war erupted yet again in Earth's anus, Boca Grande.  Leonard and Grace tried to convince Charlotte to get the hell out of Boca Grande before the latest coup began, but Charlotte had a dinner to attend at the hotel restaurant that evening.  A dinner hosted by her for herself alone.  Which was Charlotte's last supper, so to speak, her grand finale of freedom before Boca Grande's airport was shut down by rebel factions for good.

"Charlotte made not enough distinctions.  She took people's words at face value."

Yet Marin made her distinctions.  Made her judgments.  And saw the worthlessness of her parent's consumerist face values; the worthlessness of their wealth.

We know Marin's end will be life in prison or in violent death.  But where is she in the interim?

"A man who described himself as a disillusioned Scientologist called Charlotte to say that Marin was under the influence of a Clear in Shasta Lake.  A masseuse at Elizabeth Arden called Charlotte to say that she had received definite word from Edgar Cayce via Mass Mind that Marin was with the Hunzas in the Himalayas.  The partially decomposed body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave on the Bonneville Salt Flats but the young woman's dental work differed conclusively from Marin's."  At least these peculiar strangers seemed to care about Marin's whereabouts.

"Fuck Marin".

Hard to fathom Charlotte uttered those words before being fatally shot in the crossfire of Boca Grande.  Was Charlotte wrong for launching such a callous invective against her only daughter? Warren Bogart, Marin's biological father, said Charlotte was wrong about many things, but not about Marin, having been the first to say what Charlotte said about her.

The first to say, "Fuck Marin".

We know that soon after saying what Warren said about the daughter he rejected for her violent crimes, he died alone in a motel room.  So fuck Warren Bogart.  Good riddance was the general consensus regarding his death.  Readers of A Book of Common Prayer, therefore, need not anticipate a tender Douglas family reunion or reconciliation with tears.  Tear gas maybe, but not tears.

We know that the only player in Didion's grim novel, Grace Strasser Mendana, who met Marin, after her parents were dead and she was still hiding out from the F.B.I. in a cockroach-dive in Buffalo, would discover something tender, something transcendent, albeit discovered too late, upon meeting Marin.  Then Grace Strasser Mendana (named Grace for good reason), after what she learned about Marin and, more significantly, about herself, would also die.  From cancer.  And we grieve.  But we already knew this, didn't we, from the first few pages of A Book of Common Prayer?  Grace's fate. Yet still we're sad.

Portrait by Alison Perry
Knowing Grace was doomed.
Knowing Charlotte was doomed.
Knowing Charlotte's second husband, Leonard, never gave a shit.
Knowing Warren, Charlotte's first husband, always was a shit.
Knowing Marin had no chance in Hell or Boca Grande at a real childhood.
Knowing no one had a prayer is what's so sad.
Knowing all that, from the get-go, is sadder.

But knowing that bad endings begat bad beginnings in the bassackwards world of Boca Grande is barely half the sad story of A Book of Common Prayer. Because Joan Didion is that good. Relaying the bad news first and the bad news last, and whacking you repeatedly upside the head with all the bad news in between, yet keeping you guessing, still reading, still caring, thanks to Grace's dignified manner of eulogizing her misguided subjects, makes Joan's Didion's achievement as profound as the mystery of common prayer.


  1. Didon's characters never have a prayer, and Democracy is not Didion's most recent novel, She also wrote The Last Thing He Wanted, which much like Payer and Democracy is all about corruption and the arms trade.


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