Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted”

An essay written for my Readings in Contemporary Fiction class based on Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Can’t remember much about the story. A woman is trying to find her father who is mixed in some kind of Iran-Contra type of affair. She then becomes a surrogate for her father and his messes become hers to clean up. I liked the book a lot. The jumping around in time line took some getting used but after I did I became engrossed.

I recommend this book, as well as Didion’s non-fiction essays found in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.”

March 28, 2007
Readings in Contemporary Fiction    
Essay Assignment #4

The Narration of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted

At the outset of The Last Thing He Wanted who, or actually what, is narrating the novel and when they are narrating it is clear. This story of Elena McMahon’s tragic attempt to help her father is being told by a journalist who is looking back at events that had happened ten years earlier. This journalist regrets not having looked deeper into the story as it was unfolding and now, after the story and Elena McMahon have seemingly been forgotten, wants to tell it for reasons that are quite clear. It is because an innocent bystander, Elena McMahon, to the spy games played by the government was murdered and the now official line on her life was that of trafficking and assassination. As the narrator writes, “I thought she got caught in the pipeline, swept into the conduits . . . was in over her head” (12). The narrator is expressing sympathy for Elena and wants to set the record straight. Evidence of this sympathy comes on page 5 when the narrator admits to “no longer moving fast, no longer traveling light.” The narrator knows that a big story was missed, that a person’s life was trivialized (even by the narrator herself) and the guilt from knowing this has weighed her down so now the time has come to finally tell the story. The excellent visual of the narrator’s “open and unpacked baggage” (5) is used to illustrate how the narrator needs to bare her soul and lift the burden she has felt from ignoring Elena. 

It is the type of narration and the information that the narrator has that keeps The Last Thing He Wanted from being a newspaper article. The narrator has too much knowledge of things that occurred outside of her presence. She can recite verbatim conversations between Elena and her father even though she didn’t witness them and both Elena and Dick McMahon had been murdered before she could interview them. On page 5 the narrator addresses the readers and tells them straight out that it is her “talking” and that she is the “not quite” omniscient author. She wants her readers to know that even though she is able to relate conversations and events that she was not a witness to, that this story is still being told by her and not by Elena McMahon. This is what makes the novel initially somewhat confusing to read. At first it appears to be told from the perspective of one of the major players involved in the bogus arms deal and the attempted assassination. Elena would be the only possible choice because she is the main character and most of the action of the novel revolves around her. But the narrator refers to Elena in the third person, using either Elena or a feminine pronoun (like on page 14, “she reinvented ‘herself'”) instead of a first person me or I. It is possible that someone can tell their own story in the third person and allowing them to take the position of the omniscient voice to account for things that happened outside of their purview, but there are too many references to the narrator doing things in places while Elena was doing something somewhere else. One would be when the narrator trying to arrange an interview with Treat Morrison when Morrison is on his way to the island to investigate Elena McMahon’s presence there. Elena has been on the island for several weeks already and the narrator is making plans to secretly confront Morrison on the island.

It was several chapters into the novel before I figured out that Elena and the narrator are two different people. Up to that point I was assuming that Elena was the narrator and was writing the story herself, after it was over and she had time to interview the other principles’ involved like Mark Berquist and Treat Morrison. But too many references to “I” and “Elena” made that to be impossible, though I don’t agree that the narrator is “not quite” omniscient. The narrator is in fact an omniscient narrator. How else could it have known that it was Mark Berquist who had started the assassination plot against Alex Brokaw? And then there is the passage on page 117 when the narrator talks about being in her Manhattan apartment a “half-a-generation after the fact?”

Knowing that the narrator and Elena are two different people and that the narrator is in fact, contrary to her own admission, omniscient adds to the suspense of reading the novel. The novel is not told in a linear fashion. The title itself adds suspense–The Last Thing He Wanted. This says that someone is at the end or near the end of his life and will be asking for one more thing before he dies. This “thing” that “he,” in this case Dick McMahon, wants his daughter to do for him is to pull off one last deal for him. He is too sick to do it himself but is desperate to have it done so he asks his daughter to do it for him. The “thing” of course is the final in a lifetime of illegal arms smuggling that will finally allow him to leave something behind for Elena. But we the readers don’t find this out until one-fourth of the novel has been read. First the narrator sets a context for her story by talking about the Reagan years in the eighties, when money was easy to be earned but hints of the impending collapse, the recession of the late-eighties and early-nineties, were ignored. This relates to Elena ignoring hints that “her” deal was going bad. Her father told her that she would be paid at the airport after making the delivery but she wasn’t. This should have been a sign for her to get back on the plane and go home but she didn’t read it that way. She was new to this sort of thing, like people in the 1980’s were new to making that much money that quickly, so she did not understand what the full implications of her contact not meeting her meant.

From there the novel jumps around, from scene to scene, flashing back and flashing forward, moving from concentrating on Elena and then to Treat Morrison and back to Elena then to the narrator, all the while piecing together the final story. This type of fragmented construct is used because this is the way the narrator remembers it. As she says herself on page 203 she sees “fragments and flashes, and nobody saw the whole but focused on some little aspect of it.” So the narrator tells us that she has decided to tell the story in the manner that she remembered it. But that isn’t the only reason. In chapter 1 of book 2 the narrator also explains that she has never liked the “persona of the writer” (73). She doesn’t like the “conventions” of writing such as exposition, transitions and character development (73). This straying from the normal conventions of writing works in “her” story because only the most pertinent points are included, what is happening to whom and when it is happening, mixed with the omniscient narrative viewpoint. This viewpoint gives readers the sense that the narrator knows all sides of the story and includes them, making for a story that isn’t missing important information that would tend to exclude the reader from the narrative itself. It isn’t until chapter 6 of book 4 that the storyline becomes somewhat linear and the plot is fully explained. By this time enough information has come from these fragments and bits of information that the final chapters serve as a summary of what the readers can almost assume what will happen.

At first the narration in The Last Thing He Wanted was a little distracting because the narrator included several passages of exposition explaining the time period of the story and the overall attitude of that time period to give readers an appropriate backdrop for the story that was to come. But in the midst of these passages, on page 5 with “The first time Treat Morrison . . . ,” the story begins and does not stop. The narrator, who dislikes the conventions of writing, sticks to the main and most interesting parts of the story like a good journalist would and only includes enough background to let her readers know that this is a true story. Not that it is from Joan Didion’s and her reader’s standpoint (although it may be), but at least from the construct of the narrator telling the story to her readers, she wants them to believe that what they are reading is true. Keeping the expositive passages short in number and short in length keeps the focus on the story itself: the story of a woman, who is regretful over neglecting her dying mother and makes a tragic mistake when trying to not do the same to her father.

Joan Didion’s website Joan Didion – Official (

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