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Run River by Joan Didion

November 23, 2014 31 comments

Run River by Joan Didion. 1963. French title: Une saison de nuits.

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.

It’s August 1959, it is the first paragraph of Run River and I was hooked. I wanted to know about Everett and Lily and about this shot. She remains quiet, as if she expected it, as if she were in her own world, where the outside world hardly penetrates. I saw Lily as the woman on the painting Morning Sun by Edward Hopper (1952)

Hopper_MORNING_SUN

What happened? Everett shot Ryder Channing by the river, where Channing was to meet his lover, Lily. From the very first chapter we know this murder happens, we know why but what we don’t know is how Everett and Lily are going to react to it. Is Everett going to tell the police it was intentional or are they going to disguise it into an accident? Will Lily help Everett? Will Everett want to be helped?

After that, the novel goes back in time from 1938 and dissects Everett and Lily’s marriage. It is set in Northern California, in a ranch on the Sacramento River, near Sacramento. Everett McClellan has inherited the ranch from his family who comes from the first pioneers in California. We are near Sacramento, it means that the ranch is on the land which belonged to Sutter less than a century ago. So Everett’s great-grandparents were probably part of the locusts I mentioned in my billet about Sutter’s Gold by Cendrars.

Lily Knight comes from the same background. As her father repeatedly points out You come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it. He owns and runs a ranch in the same area, mostly growing fruits. Mr Knight was involved in politics and was even candidate to be the governor of California.

Didion_Run_RiverEverett is freshly graduated from Stanford when he meets Lily again. She’s his little sister Martha’s friend. She’s barely 18 and home after a year at Berkeley. She didn’t like her experience at university and she’s happy to be home, in safe territory. Everett realizes she’s all grown up and they start a relationship. Although he hardly knows how to express his feelings, we gather that he’s crazy in love with her and insists upon marrying as soon as possible. It is as if he wanted to secure her as his before she had a chance to meet someone else and leave him. She’s not sure to love him but prefers to go with the flow than take action. I think that there are two decisions in life that don’t need much thinking: getting married and having a child. No thinking is needed because the decision should be obvious. If the answer is not obviously “yes”, then it’s “no”. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him but after all, he represents the kind of man she should marry. That opens a wide and clear path to a disastrous marriage. Lily and Everett have common values and they both enjoy life on the ranch. Everett can’t imagine doing anything else than growing hops and Lily always pictured herself in that environment, so they do have this in common. However, they have little to say to each other and fail to communicate and create the deep connection that keeps a marriage alive despite the ups and downs.

Except when she was in trouble (when her father died, or when she was pregnant with Knight), she could think of little to say to Everett: she was not, nor was he, a teller of anecdotes or gossip, and sometimes weeks passed without their having what could be called, in even the crudest sense, a conversation. Usually in bed she pretended she was someone else, a stranger, and she supposed tat Everett did too; when she did not pretend she was someone else, she pretended that Everett was.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? It feels like she has given up on him. Everett is there physically and he loves her deeply but he doesn’t manage to reach out to her.

Martha turned off the light again. “Everett thinks the sun rises and sets with you. You should realize that.”

“I realize it.”

“I mean you should realize how simple Everett is.”

Everett may be simple, the problem is that Lily isn’t. On her side, she’s not grounded enough to live well with someone as simple as that. She’s not the perfect rancher’s wife. She’s not much interested in wifely duties even if she plays her role. But that’s a role for her, not her real identity.

Joan Didion describes Lily as a representative of a generation of women who don’t have careers but went to university. She goes straight from her father to her husband, from daughter to wife and mother. She never gets time to be a woman, except maybe during that short time at university. But for Lily, that time was wasted. She’s shy, she comes from a sheltered environment and she’s not ready to integrate into student life. She gets married and doesn’t know who she is and what she wants in life. It doesn’t help their relationship. She’s not a very likeable character, in my opinion. The story is told from her point of view and I would have liked to have Everett’s side of the story. I’m left wondering how things were for him. Since he’s not communicative, even Lily can only speculate. They fail each other but are never able to talk about it openly.

Martha is a disturbing element their marriage. Lily and Everett live on the McClellan ranch, with Mr McClellan senior and Martha until her untimely death. (This is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) Lily and Everett have known each other forever and they both love Martha dearly but I couldn’t help thinking Everett and she had almost an incestuous relationship:

“You might marry Everett,” Martha McClellan had suggested to Lily, once when they were both children, “if I decide not to.” “You aren’t allowed to marry your own brother” Lily had said.

You could think of it as a coincidence but I don’t think that all little girls profess that they’d want to marry their older brother. This passage also shows that Lily and Everett ending up married was a given in their microcosm.

Martha is a bit unbalanced. She’s prone to fits and melancholy. She acts out and has a love-and-hate relationship with Ryder Channing, the man Everett will kill years later. He’s not a rancher, more someone in business, always seeking a new venture. To people from their milieu, he’s not a suitable husband and Martha knows it. She pretends not to be in love with him because she always imagined herself as the wife of a rich rancher. And that he’s not. Her untimely death leaves her ghost hanging over Lily and Everett’s marriage. Lily always knew that deep down her friend never thought her worthy of marrying her brother. Everett has a hard time dealing with his grief. Martha’s shadow is always lurking in the shadows of their lives.

Apart from Lily and Everett’s individual story, Run River is also fantastic analysis of the culture and roots of the Sacramento area. Everett and Lily are the last representatives of the pioneer’s spirit. Ryder Channing represents the new California.

Like Clark McCormack, Channing conveyed the distinct impression that he could live by his wits alone. They were both free agents, adventurers who turned whatever came their way to some advantage; both pleasant, knowledgeable, and in some final way incomprehensible to Everett.

Becoming a rich rancher is not Channing’s idea of success. Like Sutter, the McClellans are rooted on their ranch and have a hard time imagining that their life could change. Martha couldn’t let go of her dream to marry a rancher to marry a man like Channing. They like the old ways and they look down on the Channings around them. Their parents tried to infuse them with the pioneer’s spirit but failed. Everett has no other ambition than to grow hops. Lily can’t grab what she wants out of life, she doesn’t even know what she wants.

Didion was born in Sacramento, she comes from that culture and she observes a turning point in her environment. Lily and Everett’s story is seen as the epilogue of the pioneer’s experience in California. I’ve also read a collection of her essays, L’Amérique and to me she’s the writer of this other California, the rural one, where the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath were headed. I read it not so long after Steinbeck’s novel and I was surprised to read that in 1938 the Okies were still pitching tents at the far end of the ranch, near the main highway south. When did it stop? When did all these people find a job and have a decent home? Of course she describes the landscapes, the city and life near the river. For example, she mentions the intense heat very often. It dictates people’s schedule in the summer, disrupts sleep and impacts their everyday life.

Didion’s style is stunning and sharp. She’s not into overgrown sentences but more into clinical description of events and feelings. Her characters are human but she’s not too complacent with them. Subtle touches of her literary paintbrush create a palpable microcosm. Her style reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. I love Hopper. On his paintings, the details of the scene are precise. The characters look away from us. They’re in their world and they seem a little sad. The scenes leave me a bit unsettled, wondering if something terrible is hovering over these people’s life or speculating about what’s going on in their mind. The subjects are often pensive, physically present but retreated in their thoughts. They don’t give away what they think or who they are. The light on the paintings enforces this impression. We only see the scene as the painter wants us to see it. We only see Lily and Everett’s life as Didion wants us to see it. Hopper and Didion both picture America from the 1920s to the 1950s and it probably explains why I had images of Hopper’s paintings in mind, even if Hopper’s scenes are set on the East coast. See Lily and Everett together in Room in New York (1932)

EDWARD HOPPER

As you have probably guessed by now, this is an excellent novel. It’s a page turner, a subtle description of a relationship and a parallel analysis of a part of California’s history. Didion is rather critical about this novel but I think she should be proud of it. Great news: Run River is her debut novel and it’s not considered to be her best! I can’t wait to read something else by her. I have The Year of Magical Thinking at home and I dread to read it because I know it’s well written and I expect it to be engaging, emotionally.

I leave you with a last quote, one that made me think:

Maybe the most difficult, the most important thing anyone would do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

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