We had a nice time in Reno

Run River, by Joan Didion

Run River opens with a death, then backtracks to show the wasted lives that led to it. It’s a lonely and melancholic book; a tale of a declining American aristocracy told in coldly lucid prose.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

In most novels a gunshot is a call to action. Characters spring to life. They scream; run towards or away from the shot; grab a gun themselves; hide; call for help. They react. Lily hears a shot and takes the time to wind her watch.

run-river

Once the watch is wound Lily checks the bedside table for her husband’s gun. She’s not surprised to find it missing. She’s not surprised when she heads outside to find that her husband has murdered her lover, Channing. She’s a little upset because she doesn’t think it was necessary, but it’s not an emotional scene. Lily and Everett aren’t emotional people, or if they are they don’t know how to express what they feel. Perhaps if they did Channing wouldn’t be dead.

That all happens in 1959. The book then jumps back to 1938, to Lily and Everett’s early days as a couple and onward to their marriage and life together. All the years leading up to that night and to Channing’s corpse.

In 1938 Lily is a student, born to privilege and a certain wealth. Her ancestors were among the early settlers of the West. She’s not happy at college and when Everett shows interest in her during a break she’s happy to return it. He’s from the same background as she is, the same historic stock. He’s the default option.

They marry, but Lily is reluctant to make a show of it so it happens in Reno without their families. They go to live on Everett’s ranch with his father and sister and she gives him two children. It’s the life she was bred for but she has no aptitude for it. She makes invitation cards for parties hardly anyone attends. She doesn’t mind. She only organised the parties because she thought she should.

Everett is a simple man living the life he was always meant to – the life his father and grandfather and so on led. The 1930s aren’t a great time to be a rancher though and it’s not clear Everett’s that good at being one anyway. He’s not the man his ancestors were. Nor is Lily the kind of wife they would have wanted.

These people drift on monied but pointless. The war comes and in what should be a warning sign Everett feels no great need to visit or call home even when he can. He likes being away, he likes the undemanding company of other men. The war gives him a purpose, but wars don’t last and the ranch still waits for him.

Lily doesn’t find any purpose. The days of the old rancher society are fading and she’s idled into her life. She took the path of least resistance and it’s led nowhere in particular.

Everett’s sister, Martha, is another major character and fares no better than Lily and Everett. We know early on that she doesn’t make it to 1959. Martha’s a vulnerable and unhappy woman. She falls in love with Channing, years before he becomes Lily’s lover. He’s of the new California, brimming with schemes to get rich that never quite come off. He doesn’t marry her. Martha lives in limbo, caught between the expectations of her class and her love of a man who is never quite brave or bold enough to be worth the devotion she gives to him.

Martha doesn’t consider Lily good enough for Everett and criticises her for her infidelities, but nothing is resolved. These characters pass noiselessly through their own lives, coexisting and occasionally colliding but somehow never quite communicating. Everett doesn’t know how to say what he feels, and Lily would rather not:

The reconciliation made her quite as uncomfortable as the scene downstairs had; things said out loud had for her an aura of danger so volatile that it could be controlled only in that dark province inhabited by those who share beds.

Snatching at what had seemed for a moment a chance to steer the conversation away from the particular and into the realm of topics so impersonal and so unweighted that they could be safely talked about.

In Greek myth the dead inhabit Hades, a shadow-realm where shades of the once-vibrant living wander without passion or pleasure. Food tastes of ashes. All passion is past. Those who loved each other in life recognise each other but only memories of feelings stir.

Sacramento should be a long way from Hades, but here it isn’t. It’s not a parallel Didion draws but it struck me that Lily and Everett had somehow abdicated their own lives and created their own little sunwashed Hades.

As ever with Didion the prose is magnificent. These two quotes come from a rare moment of grace when Lily and Everett go with Martha and Channing for a few days’ vacation on Lake Tahoe:

In the shining clarity of that afternoon in the mountains, the air so clear and sharp and the horizons clean and distant, it had seemed to Everett for a while that they could have again what he had wanted them to have, could lie in bed and laugh, neither accusing the other of anything.

All that evening, he had pretended with her, had played her game because that was the way he wanted it too, and later they swam in the lake, the water so clear that with only the moonlight and the handful of lights strung out on the dock he could make out rocks thirty feet below the surface, so cold that swimming was like grappling with dry ice.

In a sense this is a novel of people sufficiently privileged as to be able to create their own problems, as opposed to most who find the world creates problems enough for them already. Despite that their lives are still tragic. They’re still with us the Lilys and Everetts. Children born to a past that’s already made their choices for them unless they have the strength of character to break away from everything that made them, and how many of us can do that?

Late in the book Lily reflects of Everett and Channing both that “they seemed afflicted with memory.” So they are. They’re born to expectations they can’t live up to; heirs to kingdoms they’re not fit to rule. It’s 1959, America is on the eve of the ‘60s (Run River was written in ’63) and the world is changing. Lily and Martha and Everett and Channing and all of them are leftovers from history and while their forebears wrote America’s story the narrative has now moved on.

Other reviews

Didion’s never a hard sell, but it was Emma’s review at Book Around the Corner here and Jacqui’s at Jacqui Wine’s Journal here that persuaded me to read this. Thanks as ever to both.

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16 Comments

Filed under California, Didion, Joan

16 responses to “We had a nice time in Reno

  1. I’ve long intended reading her, and like the sound of this. Funny, I’d always thought she was a non-fiction writer so this came as a pleasant surprise. Another one for the pile…

  2. I think her other that I’ve reviewed here, Play it as it Lays, is the better novel but then this is her first so I guess so it should be. This is still very, very good.

    I started with her Miami, which I thought brilliant (and I’ve never even been there). From Wikipedia it looks like she’s written five novels though, so it’s a more balanced career between fiction and non-fiction than it might look.

  3. Lovely review. I’ve not yet managed to read Didion’s fiction, but her non-fiction has long been a favourite of mine and her prose, as you mention, is sublime. She’s a writer who seems to find the right word at the right time with just the perfect rhythm to carry the reader along.

  4. It’s funny that you mention Sacramento as Hades. It isn’t of course and as a city it has a lot going for it, But I’ve always found it peculiar that it’s the state’s capitol. I realise historically why that happened, but there are so many other cities in CA that outshine it.

    I have a couple of Didion books on the shelf. One of these days….

  5. Bookbii, exactly, and thank you as your comment on right word at the right time is the excuse I needed to wedge in a quote I couldn’t fit into the piece. Just wonderful use of alliteration here:

    “… the smooth absence of eccentricity achieved only by the recently rich.”

    Love that.

    Guy, I’m sure it isn’t. They make it so, for themselves as anyone can ultimately for anywhere. All around them I’m sure there are people living rewarding lives, but for these particular people the tide of history has washed out and left them stranded on the shore.

  6. I notice Run River is very early Didion, her first novel written in 1963. Sometimes a writer’s early writing is their best, sometimes not.

  7. I’m another one who’s only read Didion’s non-fiction (which is quite magnificent). If the quality of her prose carries over into her fiction I guess I’ll have to check it out…

  8. Really enjoyed your review of this, Max, and thanks for the pingback. I think you’ve really captured the sense of emotional detachment that characterises Lily and Everett’s relationship. Wonderful quotes too, especially the pair from the Lake Tahoe trip. I think you’re right to say that Play It As It Lays is the better book from a technical perspective, but I still prefer Run River. Maybe it’s the quieter, more contemplative tone that appeals to me.

  9. I’ve mainly only read Didion’s nonfiction – her essays and memoirs so it’s interesting reading about her technique, style and subjects. The characters do sound like they’re from a certain privledged class – does Didion ever write outside these types of characters in her fiction? I assumed she would but maybe she’s more like Woody Allen and sticks to one sort of milieu. Interesting parallel to Hades you draw upon. I’ll look out for copies of this in used bookstores. I remember seeing copies of it quite frequently.

  10. It is very early, and while very good is not I think her best.

    Kaggsy, the quality definitely carries over.

    Jacqui, it’s interesting that on this one you, me and Emma all picked quite different quotes. I think it shows how quotable a book it is. I loved the sense of momentum in Play It As It Lays.

    Eric, as far as I know that’s the class she writes of. I guess that’s who she knows to write about and as I allude in the piece you do need a certain level of comfort to be able to spend as much energy as these characters do on essentially internal problems.

    Obviously people of any income can and do suffer from depression, alienation, issues of meaning and purpose, but most have to juggle those with meeting the rent, staying afloat at work, weight or health problems or whatever. For Didion’s purposes I think all that would get in the way of what she’s looking to explore, which itself would drive her to characters of a certain privilege.

    She’s far from alone in that though. Jean Rhys wrote the same novel four times, each time brilliantly. I’ve not read any Philip Roth but he gets accused of the same. Wharton writes consistently of the same milieu, and Allen in his films as you say. I’ve read two of her five novels and my impression is they vary in subject and situation but tend to be consistent in having characters who are reasonably well off.

  11. Already recommended to me by Jacqui, but still not got round to even buying a copy (which usually long predates reading). Now further recommended!

  12. I’ve only read her Year of magical thinking, and loved that. Have always meant to get to her fiction. I was going to ask why you thought she set it in that period? But then I realised that as her first novel it is set during her early life so it’s not really past but a time she knew. These people would be around her parents age!

    I love that idea that he can’t express his feelings and she’s a few I’d to. Great quote.

  13. I’m sure you’d like Didion’s fiction Grant.

    WG, I wasn’t sure, but I think you have it. Nice insight. If you loved Year (which I’ve not read) then you should love her fiction too.

  14. Great review Max, one that conveys the lingering sadness of the novel. I like your image of them living in a tasteless Hades.

    Reading your review and thinking again of the theme of the lives of people with a strong family story, it reminds me of The Radetsky March where poor von Trotta can’t live up to his name and can’t adapt to the changes of the world. It also reminds me of The Hands. An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr, I book I’d buy to all my friends if it were available in French. In this one, there’s also a strong family tradition as ranchers and pioneers.

  15. I really do need to read The Radetsky March. I don’t recall Hands, I’ll take a look at yours.

  16. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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