Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy was Joan Didion’s fourth novel. I began reading her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a few days ago, but it didn’t grab me, partly because the writing didn’t sound like Joan Didion. The writing in Democracy, published seven years later (in 1984), does.

The central character is Inez Christian Victor. She is from a prominent Hawaii family and married to a prominent mainland politician. The story Didion tells does not go in a straight line. Instead, she jumps around in time and space. The events she describes tend to involve Inez’s relationship through the years with Jack Lovett, a kind of “international man of mystery”. Lovett is apparently connected to the CIA. Events in the novel take place in New York City, Honolulu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and, during the war, in Viet Nam.

Didion suggests at one point that we call her “the author”. This “author” supposedly began writing a different novel. She eventually focused on Inez, possibly because Inez is frequently in the public eye, written about and photographed as if she were Jacqueline Kennedy (except that Inez’s husband lost his race for the presidency). I can’t say we get a very clear understanding of Mrs. Victor. She sort of drifts through the novel, reacting to other people. Jack Lovett, the apparent CIA man, and a few other characters have more personality.

One way to look at Inez is to compare her point of view to Didion’s. I’ve sometimes wondered what point Didion is trying to make, especially in her essays. But recently I came upon an article about her written by Daniel Kaufman, a philosophy professor. He offers an answer:

Itโ€™s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didionโ€™s work.ย  With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point โ€” Hunter S. Thompsonโ€™s fierce independence; Kingsley Amisโ€™s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwellโ€™s unaffected, unpretentious humanity โ€“ but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused.ย  Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind ofย significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story.ย  It is Didionโ€™s view that we feel a strong need to believe this โ€“ the opening line ofย The White Albumย reads, โ€œWe tell ourselves stories in order to liveโ€ โ€” but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.

That doesn’t describe her prose, but it helps me understand what she’s often doing. As for her prose, Democracy contains passages like this:

We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.

An American in a body bag.

An American who, it was being said, had been doing business in situations where there were not supposed to be any Americans.

What did I think about this.

Finally I shrugged.

Inez watched me a moment longer, then shrugged herself.

“Anyway we were together”, she said. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.”

I wouldn’t read Democracy for the story. There hardly is one. But I enjoyed it anyway.