Democracy represents the inevitable result of Didion’s approach to writing as an act of discovery. Beginning her novels without any clear sense as to where the writing will take her, she “discovers the story in the act of making it up.” That Inez’s is “a hard story to tell” only accentuates a practice that may be profitably compared to metafiction and New Journalism. Aware of the history of the novel as a genre, she realizes that what worked for Anthony Trollope and Joseph Conrad, for example, will not work for her now. As the title of her second novel puts it, she has to “play it as it lays.” She recognizes, for example, that there is “no unequivocal way of beginning her story.”
Personality and narrative, as conventionally understood, do not apply in a novel of “fitful glimpses” in which the “first look,” instead of establishing character, only proves one of many versions to be collected and collated by author and reader alike. The reader, often directly addressed and everywhere indirectly implicated, knows what Time magazine and other news sources have “said” about Inez, but not who Inez is. “Trained to distrust other people’s versions,” Didion the novelist in the guise of journalist must nevertheless “go with what we have.” She must, as the reader must, “triangulate the coverage. Handicap for bias. . . . Consider what filter is on the lens. So to speak.” Author and reader find themselves in much the same position that Inez does—uncertain, even helpless, free at least of the willingness of Harry Victor and others to delude themselves into thinking that they are in control, that they have some special mission (whether in the White House or in Vietnam). In a novel characterized by “the repetitions and dislocations of the breaking story,” Didion asserts, “Anything could happen.”
In Democracy, as in her other novels and in her essays, Didion proves a keen and skeptical observer of the contemporary scene, its delusions no less than its details. She mimics and mocks the pseudo-discourses of politics and the social sciences and unmasks the ways in which individuals and nations narratize events into conventional and therefore comforting stories, especially in the essay “Sentimental Journeys” in After Henry (1992). Against these self-deceptions, Democracy posits its author’s distinctive style—austere, fragmented, ironic. Her style is much like Ernest Hemingway’s, as described by William Barrett: “a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one’s own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold to a standard of rightness against a deceiving world.”
There are, however, notable differences between the two. Didion, for example, plays her Hemingway-like style against her sympathetic understanding of the F. Scott Fitzgerald-like romantic yearnings and doomed commitments of some of her characters, Inez and Jack in particular. Just as important, Didion’s style is not so much economical as it is elliptical in a way that Hemmingway’s, dependent as it is on his iceberg theory of a submerged fullness of meaning, is not. As Janis P. Stout has argued, Didion’s “strategy of vacancy, of reticence” implies “an epistemology of silence” that can be traced to “a specifically female quality of experience.”
In Inez’s case, this experience is doubly female. There is her early life as the daughter of a well-to-do colonial father who plays at the part of “romantic outcast” and a mother whose romantic yearnings led her to miscast Paul Christian as the fairy-tale prince with whom she would live happily ever after in an island paradise that, like her husband,...
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falls well short of her romantic expectations. There is Inez’s other life, beginning at age twenty, as “Harry Victor’s wife.” This is the entirely public self, or persona, subjected to intense yet predictable media attention, made to play a supporting role (not unlike Jacqueline Kennedy’s and Princess Diana’s). Smiling, standing by her man, she learns to fix her stare on the middle distance and to cultivate a passive detachment.
If “a hill is a transitional accommodation to stress,” then, as Didion conjectures, “ego may be a similar accommodation.” Didion’s “may” seems no less instructive than her geological metaphor. Inez’s romantic commitment to Jack Lovett does more than replay her mother’s mistake. It represents as well an alternative to this necessary accommodation and a rejection of her role as Harry Victor’s wife. The meaning of Inez’s stand at the end of the novel, following Jack’s death, seems far more ambiguous. Is it Inez’s way of renouncing the world following a husband’s death (in this case Jack’s)? Is it her way of withdrawing from the voyeuristic gaze of the international media? Does it represent yet another of Inez’s “doomed commitments,” this time to Vietnamese refugees? Is it a form of penance? Is it a quiet affirmation of the self that she was not allowed to be in her role as Harry Victor’s wife (interest in refugees having been deemed too controversial for a candidate’s wife)? Having been her entire life “immersed” in other people’s convictions, Inez emerges (however ambiguously) and in doing so comes to accept (however belatedly) the position Didion came to in 1966—that the world was “largely unaffected by the individual efforts of anyone in it.”