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.
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.