Democracy received critical attention for its unique narrative style—a fragmented narrative in which writer Joan Didion is herself a character in the novel. She acts as author, narrator, and reporter of this story, assembling images, recollections, and historical events relating to protagonist Inez Victor’s life in an attempt to gain meaning from them. Didion introduces herself as the author at the start of the second chapter, and from this point remains a presence, consistently disrupting the narrative and rearranging and revisiting events outside logical chronology. These are actions that ultimately disturb the novel’s coherence, and so too the reader’s ability to easily comprehend meaning.
Critics remain divided regarding the effectiveness of this strategy. Some argue that her intrusions undermine the novel’s affect, while others maintain that this destabilization of certainty and meaning was perhaps Didion’s intent: to relate her belief that the political world is one in which meaning is not certain or stable, and perhaps unknowable.
An underlying feeling of uncertainty indeed pervades the novel; as author and character, Didion herself admits that the images and recollections she holds may be problematic to the composition of a story, but she further states that one must “go with what you have.” In addition to the fragmented nature of the memories, reality and fiction are further blurred by Didion’s place in her own novel as both character and author. She recalls, for example, the moment she had first met Jack Lovett—while working with Inez at Vogue; she tells about her conversations with Harry Victor and how she had dined with Billy Dillon; she recounts article clippings and photographs depicting Paul Christian’s arrest. She details these relationships as memories, and yet the reader must also never forget that she, as the author, also is consciously constructing a fictive narrative.
This current of uncertainty applies not only to the narrative structure of the novel but also to its political implications. Throughout Democracy, Didion draws attention to the idea that individuals are reduced to mere actors on the stage of American politics, regardless of what “side” they are on or how transparently they seem to play their roles. The novel, set during the beginnings of the Vietnam War in the 1950’s through the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Southeast Asia in 1975, creates a dichotomy between “state actors,” and “non-state actors”—that is, between public, seemingly legitimate political actors and shadowy, ill-defined ones.
U.S. Congressman turned senator Harry Victor is a state actor, a role Jack equates to “a radio actor,” a mouthpiece for his campaign manager, a disembodied voice. Harry is a man concerned most with constructing the right image, that is, with giving speeches, arranging press meetings, and lecturing about ideals. In reality, he has little grasp of the tumultuous events transpiring around him. This is evident, for example, in his bringing his family to vacation in Jakarta in 1969, a dangerous time in Indonesia, filled with civil and political unrest. In this case, Harry is merely a puppet bowing to the commands of his political strategist, Billy Dillon. In this world, reality is a concept constructed by the media and consumed by the American public; reality is consciously created and manipulated by those with power.
Jack, in contrast to Harry, is a nonstate actor, a secret operative whose business dealings are never fully known but are assumed to be less than legitimate. Like Inez, a woman without memory, Jack is a man who maintains no knowable past; neither seem to belong to any place, except, as Didion remarks, with each other. It is perhaps for this reason their romance endures....
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Unlike Harry, who relies on orchestrated speeches and ideals, Jack relies on action and understands global events, having experienced firsthand the brutal reality of politics in his business; he has seen the ugly trickling down of policy where the wheel hits the road—where that wheel hits human lives. While Harry remains consumed with his agenda, insulated except to his political aspirations, it is Jack who escorts Inez and the children to safety after the bombing of the embassy in Jakarta, and it is Jack who safely recovers Jesse in Saigon and sees to her return home.
Inez, and to some extent her children, must occupy a role on the sidelines as Harry’s loyal supporter; she becomes a casualty of this scripted world of actors; she loses track of events and has difficulty differentiating among versions of her life as she watches them unfold in the media; she loses track of the real story and the spin. Indeed, as Inez remarks, she lives a life “in which the major cost [is] memory.” Although Inez attempts to assert an independent self at times—for example, when she expresses desire to aid the refugees—she is paralyzed by Harry’s agenda.
Ultimately, after Jack’s death, Inez leaves Harry and her children and settles in Kuala Lumpur to help the refugees, vowing to stay on until the last is dispatched; she herself has become a kind of refugee from political life. The visions of Harry’s campaigns have dissipated, as have the connections among the family members themselves. All have relocated to different sectors of the globe. In the end, Didion leaves readers with a less than optimistic view of democracy; for all its best intentions, its motivations and machinations are as human and fallible as any social construction.