Democracy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2361

Joan Didion’s Democracy is a strange, and strangely unsettling, novel even in this, the postmodern age of aesthetic eccentricity. Odd in shape (at once too tall and too narrow), it is odder still in its texture. The large type, wide margins, short, simple sentences, and status as a Literary Guild...

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Joan Didion’s Democracy is a strange, and strangely unsettling, novel even in this, the postmodern age of aesthetic eccentricity. Odd in shape (at once too tall and too narrow), it is odder still in its texture. The large type, wide margins, short, simple sentences, and status as a Literary Guild selection suggest a “fast read”—as fast, in fact, as the contemporary world it describes. Democracy, however, is a painfully slow novel because—again like the contemporary world—Didion’s narrative is fragmented and confusing. Instead of propelling the reader forward, the white space and simple phrasings serve to retard progress, acting as visible reminders of the elliptical quality of contemporary experience and of Didion’s distinctly contemporary prose.

Although the focus here, as in her three earlier novels, Run River (1963), Play It as It Lays (1970), and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), is on a woman, Didion’s fiction is not fashionably feminist in its orientation. What interests Didion is not ideology and reform but instead her character’s existential situation and the way it confirms the author’s own mechanistic (or as she calls it here, “essentially circumstantial”) view of life. Having little of the optimism of certain feminist writers, including fellow Californian Alice Adams, Didion writes from her own bleak perspective: “A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.”

In Democracy, it is Inez Victor who must accommodate herself to the seismic forces around her, ranging from the aftershocks of American imperialism in the Pacific (Hawaii, where she is born and grows up, and Vietnam, which dominates nearly all of her adult life). Like so many of Didion’s characters, Inez is an orphan of sorts, the daughter of well-to-do, absentee parents, Paul and Carol Christian, the one a playboy who assumes the role of romantic outcast, the other a woman who abandons her children after using them for a time to ease her own unbearable loneliness. From the doubly insular life of Hawaii’s upper-class white society, the twenty-year-old Inez—like Nora, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)—enters an equally insular world when she marries Harry Victor, a liberal politician who tries and fails to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1972. For Inez, the cost of being “Harry Victor’s wife” is extraordinarily high. Inez’s existence shrinks into a series of “photo opportunities” and rehearsed campaign-trail mannerisms that leave her distant, emotionally numb—a woman who no longer finds the words happiness and unhappiness relevant. “Add it up,” she tells her husband after twenty years of marriage, “you and I didn’t have such a bad time. Net.” Her accountant’s-eye view of the emotional life chills the reader, who comes to realize, however, that it is this same emotional detachment which enables Inez to maintain her tenuous hold on reality and to assess her situation in words as honest and dispassionate as Didion’s own. The “main cost” of public life, she tells an interviewer, is not “privacy,” the answer she has been coached to give, but “memory you lose track. As if you’d had shock treatment.” Didion agrees; detachment, she realizes, is “the essential mechanism” for living a life such as Inez’s: “Drop fuel. Jettison cargo. Eject crew.”

Harry Victor (another of the novel’s ironically named characters) is seemingly, which is to say politically, neither indifferent nor distant; nevertheless, he is ineffectual and, more important, deluded. His Alliance for Democratic Institutions is not the hope of the world but, instead, an “amorphous but inspired convergence of rhetoric and celebrity,” a way to keep Harry in the public eye, to maximize the “photo opportunities.” Inez, on the other hand, prefers solitude and silence. Her laconic manner reflects her intuitive awareness of the nonsignifying nature of both word and world. Her reticence accentuates the gaps that her husband’s abstract principles, political clichés, and transitional words (“In addition to which. Moreover”) are meant to fill.

A similar gap exists between Harry and his media-made image of himself and, too, between his “admiration” and “awe” of what he calls “the most socially responsible generation” of American college students and his own children’s irresponsible behavior. Harry and Inez’s son, Adlai, is a reckless driver who puts hospital visits to those he has injured on his “agenda.” His twin sister, Jessie, shoots heroin—not, as one might expect, as an act of rebellion but simply as a “consumer decision,” preferring heroin to coffee, tea, cigarettes, and aspirin. The therapeutic society provides Harry and Inez with other consumer choices which involve ways to treat Jessie’s addiction, choices that are as absurd and as much rhetorical abstractions as Harry’s political ideals. When Jessie grows bored with her methadone and occupational therapy (working part-time as a waitress in a seafood restaurant called King Crab’s Castle), she takes off for Vietnam, having heard that “they” need workers there. It is the spring of 1975; Saigon is about to fall; Jessie, of course, does not know this and doubtless would not care even if she did. She is, after all, another Victor, adrift in her particular delusion.

There are some other gaps (and therefore other delusions) as well—social, political, narrative—including the murders of Hawaiian congressman Wendall Omura and Inez’s sister, Janet, by Paul Christian. The most interesting gap, however, is the one that involves Inez and Jack Lovett. There is, for example, the difference in their ages (Lovett is about twenty years older) and in the parts they play in Didion’s at once very personal and yet global drama (she is “Harry Victor’s wife”; he is a shadowy figure in the world of dirty tricks and clandestine operations). Unlike Harry Victor, Lovett is a realist, politically and morally unaligned, yet he is also a Gatsby-like figure: Upon first seeing the seventeen-year-old Inez one night in 1952 when a kona wind was blowing, heralding a change in more than merely the seasons, Lovett discerned “in the grain of her predictable longings and adolescent vanities an eccentricity, a secretiveness, an emotional solitude to match his own.”

Lovett sees in Inez a certain nobility of character, a yearning which neither her life as a “Christian” nor (later) her life as a “Victor” can satisfy. After their brief affair, during which Inez displays some of that same defensive detachment which later characterizes her life as “Harry Victor’s wife,” she and Lovett cross paths only four times between 1952 and 1975, when Lovett, like some knight errant, rescues Inez from her marriage and, as a token of his love, Jessie from Saigon. Throughout this period, which coincides with the era of American involvement in Vietnam, Lovett maintains his love for Inez or, more accurately, for his image of Inez, that finer self which has eluded so many photographers and interviewers. Lovett provides the one constant, the one absolute, in a world epitomized by the debacle of the American evacuation from Saigon, the secular but no less sobering final days, during which all of the vanity and purposelessness symbolized by that ironic “involvement” crystallizes and dissolves. The love of Inez and Lovett, their involvement, is something finer. Except for these two lovers, Didion portrays her characters chiefly as caricatures in a decidedly existential political cartoon. These others can be “defined.” Inez and Lovett cannot; they are “evanescent,” “elusive.” Of all the novel’s characters, they are both the most realistic (or fatalistic) and the most romantic; they are the most emotionally detached and yet the only ones who seem to care deeply about anything or anyone. Against all the abstractions of their age—the political and psychological clichés, the moral platitudes—their romance stands out as, in Robert Frost’s phrase, a momentary stay against confusion—momentary because Lovett’s death cuts short their romance, returning Inez to what she has always been, without ever quite realizing it, a “refugee.”

Buried deep within the intricacies of this “hard story to tell” lies an allegory about the collapse of the American dream of invincible power and invincible innocence. This is Inez’s discovery; this is why, asserting the very limited will that Didion’s characters seem to possess, she chooses to claim no longer “the American exemption.” As she now understands, “she had spent her childhood immersed in the local conviction that the comfortable entrepreneurial life of an American colony in a tropic without rot represented a record of individual triumphs over a hostile environment. She had spent her adult life immersed in Harry Victor’s conviction that he could be president.” Realizing that individual and even collective human effort count for little if anything, and justified in no longer feeling “interested” in her family, Inez first retreats and then withdraws, or evacuates, entirely. Having spent so much of her life flying with Harry to various photo opportunities, she now settles in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, which, Didion adds, is “en route nowhere.” Her reasons for staying on in Kuala Lumpur evidence her hard-won preference for disillusionment over delusion: “Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air.” Are they good reasons? As good as any, better, because more honest, than the ones Harry Victor uses to justify his existence. Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, all the happy endings in this novel are reserved for Didion’s most deluded characters: Harry is appointed special envoy to the common market; his campaign manager, Billy Dillon, has a new candidate; Adlai is a law clerk for a federal judge; and Jessie is in Mexico writing—as Didion most certainly is not—a historical romance. Inez must make do with much less. “Not that it matters,” she tells her friend Joan Didion eight months after Jack Lovett’s death, “I mean the sun still rises and he still won’t see it.” The novel does not end with this restatement of Lovett’s bleak realism. It ends, instead, with a glimpse of that other romantic side of Inez’s paradoxical personality, with Inez (as quoted in a British magazine) determined to remain in Kuala Lumpur until the last refugee has been resettled. Since, as Didion adds, resettlement will take considerably longer than Inez’s lifetime to complete, the magazine report suggests that Inez has once again deluded herself. The ending is not quite so simple, however, for Didion’s citing of the magazine article makes matters less certain, more complex than one would like; the committed idealist of the magazine report may be simply another media-made version of “Harry Victor’s wife,” in which case the real Inez still remains undefined, elusive.

The reader cannot be sure because the author cannot. Democracy is, in fact, less a story about Inez Victor than it is Didion’s record of her inability to write that story, to create an orderly narrative out of the confusion of names, dates, places, reports, interviews, photographs, television images, her own novelistic false starts, and other materials, much of which is contradictory, all of which is incomplete. Didion openly acknowledges her incapacity as well as her role. “Call me the author,” she writes in imitation of Herman Melville, who left his own novel about democracy, Moby Dick (1851), ragged and incomplete by design rather than by necessity. Didion understands that she is an “author” who has an abundance of details but no usable past, no viable narrative method. She is at once a novelist and a reporter, and therefore, like the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song (1979), she is neither. Instead, she is some as yet undefined other, whose world seems “to deny the relevance not only of personality but of narrative” as well. She is a writer who knows all of this—who knows that she is lost, and not in any Barthian funhouse either—but who also knows that “we go with what we have,” playing it as it lays. Among the many fragments Didion has before her is a question from an undergraduate composition textbook concerning one of her essays: “Consider, too, Didion’s own involvement in the setting: an atmosphere results. How?” In Democracy, Didion’s involvement in the story of Inez Victor results not only in a novel about the purposeless motion that characterizes contemporary life but also in a novel that is itself “in motion” (to use Richard Pearce’s term). Democracy, thus, re-creates in its very texture the anxiety and sense of helplessness that Didion has discovered at the heart of the modern age, an age of questions rather than answers, of “tenuous connections” rather than Emersonian “correspondences,” of evacuations rather than alliances, of accommodations to stress rather than free Americans, imperial selves.

Democracy is the most journalistic of Joan Didion’s four novels, and the news it reports is not good. In the hundred years since the publication of Henry Adams’ novel of the same title, the situation in the United States has worsened. In Adams’ Democracy (1880), power and politics merely corrupt; in Didion’s, they are pointless abstractions. In his novel, there is tangible evil; in hers, there is not. In Adams’ novel, there are moral victories and moral defeats; in Didion’s, there are none. The apocalyptic beauty of the atomic explosions described at the beginning of her novel has supplanted his famous symbol of anarchic power, the dynamo. “In 1975 time was no longer just quickening but collapsing, falling in on itself, the way a disintegrating star contracts into a black hole.” Unlike a black hole, however, Didion’s novel does permit some light to escape: the narrative fragments that make up the record of Didion’s decision to tell, as best she can, the theory of Inez Victor. Didion stubbornly refuses to “jettison” Inez. It is precisely this refusal that makes Didion a romantic rather than a nihilist. Things may be “closing down” as Didion says, but she has not closed the book on Inez. Instead of writing her off, Didion has written about Inez: her (given the times) exemplary life and stubborn refusal to be “Harry Victor’s wife,” to be (as Jacqueline Kennedy apparently and unfortunately was) the vacuous public image that her age demanded.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Joan Didion’s Democracy rewrites Henry’s Adams’ 1880 novel of the same name, about young widow Madeleine Lee’s attraction to and eventual distaste for American political power, from a more contemporary and specifically female point of view. Seven years in the making, Democracy, first titled “Angel Visits,” was originally set on Hawaii and dealt with three generations of a family that had benefited from and been shaped by the colonial imperative. Vestiges of that novel, “a study of provincial manners, in the acute tyrannies of class and privilege by which people assert themselves against the tropics,” survive in Democracy’s opening pages, but only as “the shards of the novel” Didion is “no longer writing.” Democracy focuses instead on one member of that family, Inez Christian Victor, and her relationship with the shadowy Jack Lovett. Inez and Jack are the novel’s most intriguing characters because, for Didion, they are the hardest to define, the ones who “seemed not to belong anywhere at all, except, oddly, together.” Together is, however, what Inez and Jack rarely are—except in 1952 when they first meet; again in 1960 when Jack, en route to one of his clandestine operations, visits her at the editorial offices of Vogue magazine, where Inez and Didion then worked; in 1969 in Jakarta, where Inez has gone with her husband, at the time a United States senator, on one of the many political trips designed to keep him in the news; and finally in 1975 when Jack, playing the part of knight in shining armor, rescues his damsel in distress and, against the backdrop of the messy American pullout from Vietnam, carries Inez off, via jumbo jet, to Hong Kong.

In telling Inez’s (and Jack’s) story, Didion, writing several years after Jack’s death and Inez’s subsequent withdrawal from public scrutiny, deliberately and self-consciously resists conventional journalistic and psychoanalytic interpretations, and conventional plotting and characterization as well. She acknowledges, for example, what as a writer she “could do” but does not (except “under erasure,” as the deconstructionists call it) and what her characters “would say” but, again, do not. Democracy reads, therefore, less like a finished novel or even work-in-progress (on the order of John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”) than an eloquent yet at the same time almost incoherent accumulation of notes gathered over the years from a wide variety of sources. These include Didion’s false starts and nominally abandoned drafts, asides to the reader, newspaper and television news reports, photographs, film footage, police reports, and Didion’s own conversations/interviews with characters presented as if they were historically verifiable people whom the reader must remember reading about in the newspapers and seeing on television.

In its style, subject, and structure, Democracy is very clearly a novel of, as well as about, its time (chiefly the postwar period), from the testing of nuclear weapons to the American pullout from Vietnam. Although the novel has both a beginning (Inez’s colonial background) and an end (her present work at a refugee center in Kuala Lumpur), the events in-between, even though often specifically dated and placed, seem more or less randomly arranged, associatively rather than causally or chronologically connected. The fact that Didion divides her text into four numbered parts of twelve, fourteen, three, and four sections, respectively, paradoxically serves to accentuate the novel’s fragmentary structure. Didion handles space in much the same way that she handles time. Read one way, the novel is expansive: Settings are geographically distant from one another, and connections between them covered by jet, telephone, or cable. Read another way, the novel is a narrative black hole, a Vietnam-like quagmire, a literary democracy in its most reductive form.

This reductiveness, which is as much thematic as structural, is implicit in the novel’s most obvious use of mise en abime in which Didion, as authorial persona, quotes a passage from a freshman composition textbook dealing with one of Didion’s own essays. “Consider, too, Didion’s own involvement in the setting: an atmosphere results. How?” This is the same question that readers of the novel have been asking themselves. Didion’s narratively split personality underscores the divided nature of a novel that is as much about Didion’s effort to tell her story as it is about the ostensible subject of that story, the ironically named Inez Christian Victor and her efforts to make a life for herself in postwar but largely prefeminist times. In the novel’s concluding section—virtually a parody of the proleptic endings of so many nineteenth century novels that are themselves versions of the “and they all lived happily ever after” endings of fairy tales—Didion looks in vain for a Jamesian “figure in the carpet.” She finds nothing better than Inez’s reasons (solicited by Billy Dillon) for staying in Kuala Lumpur: “Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air.” Ironic and enigmatic to the end, Inez remains beyond the novelist’s and the reader’s understanding, though not beyond their willingness to witness (an idea first introduced in Didion’s third novel, 1977’s A Book of Common Prayer) and, however strangely, to affirm.

Places Discussed

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*Honolulu

*Honolulu. Hawaii’s capital city, in which Inez Christian was born and grew up during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her college experience on the U.S. mainland led to her marriage to Harry Victor. Despite his political career as a senator from California, and years of residence in Washington, D.C., and New York City, both family ties and fate keep pulling her back to Hawaii. In part this pattern may symbolize the tensions in American life in this era, when formerly East Coast-oriented political “actors” kept being drawn into obligations and conflicts in the Pacific arena.

Even into the 1970’s, life in Honolulu for Inez and her relatives retains many of the perks and institutions of its colonial past. Daiquiri poolside lunches and visiting ballet companies, investments in container corporations and Sea Meadow housing developments all play a part in the family’s illusion of a protected life. However, the occasional presence of Jack Lovett, a mysterious agent with covert, unspecified business all across the Pacific region, shows a different face of the island state. This is underscored by the scene at Schofield Barracks in which Jack and Inez watch television coverage of the simultaneous evacuation of several Southeast Asian capitals. Airfields are jammed with trans-Pacific commerce and rescue missions, and a faint sense of decay as well as luxury reminds the reader that Honolulu is a tropical city not entirely unlike the others that loomed so large in the decade’s disastrous events. When Inez’s father, Paul Christian, shoots her sister Janet Zeigler and a congressman on the rim of the Zeigler’s indoor koi-fish pool, the intrusion of reality is complete.

The book is sparing of descriptive detail. Hawaiian scenic vistas play little part, either in the narrative or in Inez’s memories. Strangely enough, the few scenes she remembers as places and times where she might have been happy took place elsewhere—a hotel room in Chicago with snow piling up outside; a lunch en famille on a rainy day in Paris. These spotty recollections echo her belief that the price public life exacts is a loss of memory, but the memories also reflect settings where she is out of cameramen’s and reporters’ range. Because of her family’s and her husband’s prominence, she seldom attained this happy situation in Honolulu.

*Kuala Lumpur

*Kuala Lumpur. Capital city of Malaysia, situated on the eastern coast of the Malaysian peninsula, which served as a way station and refuge for people fleeing persecution in Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries. In the novel, Inez visits a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur when her husband’s travels take them to Malaysia. As a “special interest” it is considered too controversial by his political advisors, but when she leaves Honolulu with Jack Lovett on the eve of her sister’s funeral, she ends up working in the camp on a semi-permanent basis. Inez thus finally puts her husband’s liberal principles into practice, while he is still flailing around, changing positions every time a poll result shifts.

*Saigon

*Saigon. Capital of South Vietnam before the reunification of Vietnam. Of all the places mentioned in Democracy, Saigon is the only one Inez never visits, but it serves as a storm center and catalyst for many events in her life. Jack Lovett goes to Saigon sporadically on unspecified missions. When Inez’s daughter Jessie refuses to attend her Aunt Janet’s funeral, she flies to Saigon instead, seeking a waitress job or perhaps a reliable drug connection. This is during the final days of the American pullout from the city. Inez, frightened for Jessie, asks Jack to go to Saigon, as he is the only person who knows his way around the embattled capital. Miraculously, he goes and forcibly puts the young woman on a U.S.-bound flight just as American troops are abandoning their mission in Vietnam.

Context

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Didion’s novels and books of journalistic nonfiction have made her a unique figure in contemporary American literature, an acclaimed novelist and one of the most frequently anthologized essayists of her time. Despite her accomplishments—her distinguished works and distinctive style—and despite her preoccupation with subjects such as abortion, romantic love, mother-daughter relations, and sexual submissiveness, Didion has attracted surprisingly little attention from feminist critics (Katherine Usher Henderson and Stout being two important exceptions). Even as she adopts traditionally female forms such as the romance and rewrites typically male narratives such as Adams’ Democracy, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), and in her depiction of her female protagonists’ “passive detachment,” Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Didion proves neither polemical nor politically correct in assessing the damage that men (and male narratives) inflict on women.

As she explained to Susan Stamberg, her novels are “cautionary tales. Stories I don’t want to happen to me.” The language here is instructive: Didion’s “don’t want” rather than the more emphatic and determined “won’t allow.” Deeply skeptical of political rhetoric on the one hand and the American infatuation with Emersonian self-reliance on the other, Didion writes of the “doomed commitments” of women who will never triumph as do the similarly well-to-do female characters in Alice Adams’ fiction or the differently victimized ones in Alice Walker’s. Even in her essay on the rape and brutal beating of the Central Park jogger (“Sentimental Journeys” in After Henry), as in Democracy, Didion, instead of offering a predictable mix of sympathy and outrage, examines the way in which that event was narratized by journalists and politicians. Those who complain that literary postmodernism is an exclusively male club would do well to consider the fiction of Didion as well as that of Angela Carter, Renata Adler, Rikki Ducornet, and others. They would also do well to consider Inez’s reply to Billy Dillon, explaining why she remains in Kuala Lumpur, in relation to the point that Didion made some years earlier in her essay “Why I Write”: that writing is “an act of aggression, a way of imposing oneself on the world.” Ultimately, however, Didion is deeply skeptical about the ability of any individual, whether male or female, to shape her, or his, own life. Democracy, like Didion’s other works, is not about empowerment; it is about disillusionment as an alternative to delusion.

Democracy

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The Story:

Inez Victor, the daughter of a once-prominent Hawaiian family and the wife of a senator, was disillusioned with her life in the political limelight. Alienated from her husband, she once again met with Jack Lovett, a man with whom she had had a brief affair as a teen. Inez and Jack, a mysterious “information specialist” working unofficially for the U.S. government, had been meeting by chance in political circles for more than twenty years.

The year had been difficult for Inez. Her husband, Harry, took the family to Jakarta on a mission to ascertain if human rights violations were occurring. However, it soon became apparent that Harry was chosen for this mission because of his willingness to overlook real political problems rather than daring to speak out and alienate the government or the voting public. Jack was finally able to rescue the Victor family by finding a place for them to stay until they were taken out of the country.

This was also the year that Inez’s sister, Janet, was murdered by their father in a fit of insanity. After dealing with this situation, Inez left her marriage and went with Jack to Southeast Asia to save her heroin-addicted daughter, Jessica. Jessica had gone to Vietnam to find a job just as the U.S. armed forces were being evacuated. They were able to rescue Jessica, but Jack was killed; Inez brought his body back to Hawaii for burial. Tired of her role as a senator’s wife, a role which allowed her no private life or personal freedom, Inez fled to Kuala Lumpur finally to pursue an interest of her own by working with a program to aid refugees.

Critical Evaluation:

Joan Didion’s fourth novel, Democracy, is about American politics and the Vietnam War, public and private life, the media, and image management. However, it is mostly the story of Inez Victor, daughter of a powerful Hawaiian family and congressman Harry Victor’s wife. Didion explores the toll that living in the public eye, combined with the pressure to do “the correct thing,” has taken on Inez’s life.

Democracy begins in 1975 with an introduction to Jack Lovett, Inez’s potential lover, and his description of the islands during the Pacific nuclear bomb tests of the 1950’s. Through this scene, Jack Lovett is presented as a behind-the-scenes player in an unofficial government capacity. What Jack Lovett actually does is never clear. He arranges transport and sets up “AID funding” and “export credit programs.” Even his former wives have trouble describing his occupation. His first calls him an army officer, the next an “aircraft executive.” Jack Lovett operates in the shadows. He makes policy decisions and deals, he networks worldwide on behalf of the war, and he refers to himself as a “businessman” or “a consultant in international development.” All of these titles are euphemisms. Jack Lovett is a troubleshooter on the business end of the war, and his approach to the problems that arise is not always legal or ethical.

Didion refers back to this opening scene, in which Jack and Inez dance in a bar as he describes the nuclear tests to her, several times throughout the novel. Didion uses the scene in the bar, along with the whole year, as the center around which all other events turn. While Inez and Jack’s ongoing, generally unacknowledged feelings for each other are not primary to Inez’s character, her relationship with Jack is significant. Most obviously, Jack operates as a foil for Inez’s husband, Harry Victor. While Jack Lovett is a loner who feels most comfortable “in the presence of strangers,” Harry Victor is always surrounded by a coterie of advisers such as his campaign manager Billy Dillon, his family, or, on at least one trip, a girlfriend. Jack Lovett assesses situations and acts accordingly, while Harry Victor spews political rhetoric designed to have the best impact on the most people and, as a result, never seems to accomplish anything. Harry Victor represents democracy in its most ironic form. So intent is he on giving the people their say that he is practically immobilized, made impotent by a fear of alienating too many people to achieve reelection. In contrast, Jack Lovett represents a more cynical brand of democracy. He is a necessary agent in a government composed of Harry Victors. Jack Lovett can be counted on to take action, to make rational decisions regardless of public sentiment.

In two instances in the novel, Jack Lovett puts Harry Victor’s family members out of harm’s way while Harry Victor stands by and does nothing. In the episode in which Harry takes his family into the line of fire in Jakarta, his true lack of understanding becomes apparent. Harry is a sort of government shill, prized for his willingness to overlook or not to see. As Jack Lovett says, he has blinders on, and when Harry Victor refuses to acknowledge the danger to his family in a place where there is rifle fire in the streets and a grenade has exploded in the U.S. embassy, Jack cannot keep silent. “I believe some human rights are being violated on the verandah,” he says when Harry refuses to cut short a speech. It is Jack Lovett who secures safe lodging for them in the mountains until they can be transported out of the country. Later, when Jessica Victor has gone to Vietnam during the evacuation, it is Jack Lovett who flies there, locates her, and finds her a place to stay until he can get her on a flight back to the United States. Harry Victor, meanwhile, is reluctant to do anything to ensure Jessica’s safety.

The implication of these two scenes is clear. The form of democracy that Harry Victor thinks he represents—with his Neighborhood Legal Coalition operating out of a Harlem storefront and his book The View from the Street: Root Causes, Radical Solutions and a Modest Proposal co-authored, like all of his other writing, with Billy Dillon—is a sham. His interest in the people, perhaps once rooted in a sincere concern, is hollow now. He listens and reflects what he hears, but only as long as doing so guarantees his position. Harry Victor is unable to make a move until he can gauge a potential public response to his actions. The power he thinks he has gained through his political position is illusory. What he really has is a portion of carefully managed fame.

Didion is most intent on charting the effects that this fame and living constantly in the public eye have had on Inez. In order to bring the reader closer to Inez, Didion puts herself in the novel in the character of the narrator and sometime confidante to Inez. Didion relays the events of the novel through the various accounts told to her by the actual characters and through her own personal observations of the characters in action. The effect of this metafictional device is to make the events and characters more real, more immediate.

This sense of the story as true is enhanced by the fact that Didion has included many real elements from her own life in the character of the narrator Joan Didion. Like Didion, the narrator is a reporter who has at one time worked for Vogue magazine and, at another, lectured at Berkeley. She even quotes a composition textbook that includes a writing assignment based on one of her essays. The fact that Didion also discusses the writing of the novel as the work progresses—careful never to let down the mask of reporting—increases the sense of immediacy the novel conveys. She presents the genesis of the novel as having been Carol Christian, Inez and Janet’s mother, and mentions the various props she uses to support her writing, particularly newspaper clippings and photographs of Inez and her family members. Didion tells the reader that she has filtered out the most important elements of Inez’s story. She lists the scenes, details, and story lines she has decided to leave out, the excess trimmed to leave her with an image of Jack Lovett waiting for Inez Victor. “I have been keeping notes for some time now about the way Jack Lovett waited for Inez Victor,” Didion says, lending their story a sense of importance and urgency which is enhanced by the terseness of her prose. As a narrator, Didion is smart and compelling largely because she has taken the time to establish herself as a reliable observer. When she questions the account of an event she has received from one of the characters, she includes that account’s probable biases. That she is a reporter and has occasion to travel on story assignments also makes her tale appear more authentic. Ironically, it is reporters and the media who have accounted for some of the major losses in Inez’s life.

In a particularly revealing scene, Didion looks on as Inez gives an interview in a Miami hotel room during Harry Victor’s campaign for presidential candidacy. Billy Dillon has insisted that Inez go through with the interview, explaining that it is just a game, a finite number of minutes during which she simply has to “place the ball . . . inside the lines.” Inez is struggling, though, to communicate with the reporter. When asked what the major cost of public life has been, Inez replies that it is memory. She explains that the various events of her life get repeated— sometimes incorrectly—so often in print that she loses track of what really happened or of her own take on those events. In this scene, Inez is frustrated with the reporter, who seems not to follow her line of thought and becomes easily sidetracked into the status of Inez’s mental health when Inez says this memory loss is “something like shock treatment.” It is clear that these interviews are not just a game for Inez. They are restrictive, they necessitate self-abridgment, and Inez is never afforded the opportunity to set the record straight, to be herself.

Janet’s murder is the catalyst for Inez. After looking on as her father’s institutionalization, Janet’s “technical death” (she has been sustained by life support and must have three flat electroencephalogram readings before her death will be official), and Harry Victor’s official response to the tragedy have been negotiated, Inez leaves with Jack Lovett, the only one who has ever told her “get it while you can.” Immediately Inez is afforded the freedom of relative anonymity. While Jack Lovett is searching for Jessie in Vietnam, Inez stays in Hong Kong and reads in the papers not about her presence there, but about the absence of Harry Victor’s wife from his sister-in-law’s funeral. She realizes how slight her connection to her husband and children feels and, less overtly, that submission to her designated role has amounted to nothing. Finally, when Inez goes to Kuala Lumpur to work with refugees, a “special interest” deemed too controversial by her husband’s political advisers, it is not only significant to her assertion of her independence but also important because it calls attention to the fact that Inez is herself a sort of refugee from the public scrutiny and the familial obligations that have taken so much of her life.

Bibliography

Ching, Stuart. “ ‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion’s Democracy.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Ching’s chapter discusses Didion’s portrayal of the Vietnam War in Democracy.

Felton, Sharon. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. This text presents a sampling of the critical response to each of Didion’s books. One of these criticizes Didion for “borrowing” from her former novels.

Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. Although none of the pieces concerns Democracy directly, the collection is nevertheless useful for Didion’s essay “Why I Write,” three previously published interviews, and Victor Strandberg’s analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influence on Didion. (“Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer”).

Garis, Leslie. “Didion and Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage.” The New York Times Magazine, February 8, 1987, 18-24, 26, 52, 55, 58, 65. An excellent profile of Didion and her writer-husband John Gregory Dunne, focusing on their literary marriage, collaborative efforts as screenwriters, mutual support, and different backgrounds.

Henderson, Katherine Usher. “The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson, (also the author of Joan Didion (1981), appends comprehensive bibliographies of works by and about Didion to her useful essay.

Henderson, Katherine Usher. “Joan Didion: The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson explores the effects that Didion’s first-person narrator, named Didion, has on the story, particularly in terms of her relationship with Inez Victor.

Stout, Janis P. Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990. Stout points out that while Didion’s use of white space and short “stand-alone” sentences may at first appear to be a gimmick, it lends the novel’s events an appropriate urgency.

Tager, Michael. “The Political Vision of Joan Didion’s Democracy.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 31, no. 3 (1990): 173-184. Tager discusses the irony in Didion’s title, Democracy, and points out similarities between the events in the novel and the thinking behind the Iran-Contra scandal. Tager pays particular attention to the characters Harry Victor and Jack Lovett.

Historical Context

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The Legacy of the 1970s
Democracy was published in 1984, but the major part of the narrative focuses on the previous decade. An important political theme—the existence of individual wheeler-dealers brokering deals with the connivance of government, and sometimes at the government's bequest—touches upon one of the major political stories of the 1980s: the Iran-Contra crisis. The scandal was first revealed in 1986, when a secret CIA operative was shot down over Nicaragua. His cargo was a load of weapons intended for the Contras, a group of anti-Communist rebels. Further investigation into the matter revealed that this illegal shipment had been funded by secret sales of arms to Iran—a country under an arms embargo since hostages were seized at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. High-ranking members of President Ronald Reagan's administration were later implicated in the scandal, but most received pardons or were granted immunity for their testimony.

When Didion chose to write explicitly about this story in her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, she set the events in 1984. Democracy's first readers were able to read the book with detail and background to the Iran-Contra events unfolding in real-time. Inevitably, early reviewers and commentators on the book drew attention to this. However, the primary political and social focus of the novel is still the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s.

From many points of view the 1970s was a featureless or transitional decade. One commentator, Peter Carroll, named his 1984 survey of the decade It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. During the first half of the 1970s, the cultural and political trends of the 1960s remained dominant. In the second half, many of the trends that were to characterize the 1980s began to manifest themselves. However, deeper analysis reveals it to be possibly the most important decade in the post-war history of the United States. Two ideological positions were challenged at the time. The first of these—the belief in the expansion of American influence overseas—had before been taken for granted by both Democrats and Republicans. The second—support for liberal civil rights programs—had been more rigorously debated. But the legacy of the Lyndon Johnson administration, and the cultural climate of the closing years in the 1960s, seemed to protect such programs from attack. These basic principles of national self-belief were given a severe jolt by defeat in Vietnam. It was not so much the fact America lost the war as the ignominious and chaotic nature of civilian withdrawal that dented national pride most profoundly.

Vietnam
The concept of "Manifest Destiny"—that Americans had been divinely chosen to spread their influence and belief in freedom of the individual to all parts of the globe—had been axiomatic in American political affairs since the 1840s. In the nineteenth century, this belief had mainly fed the frontier spirit during the period of westward expansion. In the twentieth century, and particularly after World War II, America had extended its influence overseas, such as to the Philippines in Asia. In the 1960s a further frontier had been confronted, with manned flights to outer space and the Moon.

In conquering this latter frontier, America was in direct competition with the Soviet Union, its Cold War enemy. Initially, involvement in Vietnam had been explicitly explained as a stand against communism and a defense of the free world. It had become complicated by America's importation of corporate capitalism into South Vietnam (so that business interests jockeyed for position with political and ethical factors) and, during the Richard Nixon administration, by increasing signs of detente (an easing of political conflict) between the two superpowers. At home presidential and national attention on the war was diverted by the Watergate affair, in which Nixon tried to cover up the illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D.C. The incident eventually led to Nixon's resignation.

Didion refers repeatedly in her novel to the exact circumstances of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975. The hectic and frantic helicopter flights out of Saigon are vividly described in a first-hand account by Stephen Klinkhammer, published in Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. In this account Klinkhammer repeatedly describes the withdrawal as "total chaos"' and "really a mess." Further details from this and other first-hand accounts are also used by Didion. In the novel, there are several references to money changing hands, and to certain people profiting out of the situation. Klinkhammer describes the Vice President of South Vietnam escaping with "an immense amount of gold bars." Didion implies that some American civilians also profited from the situation.

Watergate and Secrecy
As reported in the June 4, 1973, edition of Time magazine, President Nixon issued a four thousand word statement attempting to explain his actions with regard to Watergate. This statement explicitly attempted to defend political espionage because of a climate in which sensitive political matters were brought into the open for the sake of openness. "I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in newspapers," Nixon is reported (in the same article) to have said to a rapturous audience of ex-P.O.W.s. And in the statement itself: "By mid-1969, my Administration had begun a number of highly sensitive foreign policy initiatives aimed at ending the war in Vietnam, achieving a settlement in the Middle East, limiting nuclear arms, and establishing new relationships among the great powers. These involved highly secret diplomacy. They were closely interrelated. Leaks of secret information about any one could endanger all. Exactly that happened. News accounts appeared in 1969 which were obviously based on leaks—some of them extensive and detailed—by people having access to the most highly classified security materials. There was no way to carry forward these diplomatic initiatives unless further leaks could be prevented."

In such a way did those at the helm in public life defend secret, undemocratic methods—in the name of the democracy that those methods and "diplomatic initiatives" so flagrantly flouted. There is not a polemical point running through Didion's novel relating to its title. Rather, she takes for granted her audience's experience of contemporary political life and allows readers to draw their own conclusions from the focus of the narrative. Didion was writing the novel from the perspective of a disenchanted Republican.

Literary Style

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Narrative/Point of View
"This is a very hard story to tell," the narrator declares at the end of Chapter 1. Immediately after this, Chapter 2 begins, "Call me the author," an echo of the famous opening line "Call me Ishmael" from Moby-Dick. This is immediately undermined by a playful pastiche, or imitation, on the intrusive voice of nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope. On the same page, there is a quotation from a Wallace Stevens poem: "A gold-feathered bird/Sings in the palm, without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song." Didion is at pains to establish that the narrator of Democracy is not a fictional character, but the author herself. Although the rest of Chapter 2 is largely about problems she, as author, has supposedly encountered with the structure of her story, the reader is also asked to accept her as a character in her own book, playing an important role as witness and reporter (the passer-on of direct evidence).

This dual presence of Didion the novelist and Didion the character—the artist constructing her fiction vs. the reporter recording true-life events— has a disconcerting effect upon the reader. The strongest presence is of Didion the novelist, so that although the reader is made vividly aware of several of the characters, there is never any serious attempt to tell events from their point of view. The unbroken awareness of the novel as artifice—of something being self-consciously manufactured by the writer—is compounded by Didion's stylistic quirks, which again draw the reader's attention to the author. The reader is kept at a cool distance from the characters and events by the narrative voice, an effect which (if the quotation from Wallace Stevens is kept in mind) would appear to be intentional, rather than a failure of engagement.

Structure
The book is divided into four sections. Section 1 has twelve chapters; Section 2 has fourteen; Section 3 has three; and Section 4 has four. Chapters are usually short, focusing on one key scene, or on the musings of the author. The main narrative action takes place during 1975—before, during, and after the American withdrawal from Saigon, Vietnam. But Didion's narrative method, especially in the first two sections of the novel (which together comprise eighty per cent of the whole book), is not a consecutive one. She visits and revisits, in no particular chronological order, other important years in the lives of her characters: 1934, the year in which Carol Christian, Inez's mother, arrives in Honolulu as a bride; 1952, the first meeting between Inez and Jack Lovett; 1955, Inez's marriage to Harry Victor; 1960, the year in which Inez and the author worked together at Vogue; 1972, the year of Harry's failed attempt to win his party's presidential nomination; and 1973, when Adlai has a serious accident and Jessie's heroin addiction is revealed.

Didion's circling around this narrative material evoke in the reader thoughts of the investigalive journalist. The book is not a mystery or a thriller. Told conventionally it would be a family saga with a political edge. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a popular novelist using the same material to work up a fat, five-hundred-page, episodic bestseller. The structure Didion chooses suits her own purpose, which is to explore connections and continuities between the past and the present. She wishes to make the reader aware that life experiences are often connected with events fairly distant in time, rather than those immediately preceding. To this end, the narrative structure works well, and it is something of a surprise when the two short, final sections of the novel deliver a conventional episodic conclusion.

Style
The use of repetition which occurs in the opening lines of Democracy—recurring from time to time throughout the novel—is one of the novelist's stylistic trademarks. She takes the words from the end of one sentence and uses them to begin the next. Cadenced repetition is not a new technique. One of Didion's early influences was Ernest Hemingway. As a teenager she copied out whole sections from his novels. The opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms is a famously effective example of the use of repetition. But Didion's use of repetition has prompted criticism more than praise. Commentators find it over-formulaic. Her habit of separating repeated phrases so that each is on a separate line, in a paragraph of its own, has been called "padding."

Dialogue
Critics do not always consider Didion's use of poetic repetition effective. However, the consensus is that she is excellent at writing dialogue, although she chooses to transcribe it idiosyncratically; sometimes with quotation marks, sometimes without. In Democracy her use of dialogue is highly edited. She uses only those exchanges between characters that illuminate the themes she is developing. Snatched conversations are Didion's most effective means of characterisation. The reader understands Inez through her conversations with Billy Dillon and Jack Lovett, rather than through any direct comment from the novelist. Didion makes use of two types of dialogue. One (the kind presented without quotation marks) is overtly impressionistic and not intended to be literal. The other, and the kind in which Didion excels, is presented conventionally, and purports to be the direct transcription of words actually spoken.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Didion's novel Democracy examines the relationship between politics and personal life.

1. Read some of the firsthand accounts of the American withdrawal from Saigon and identify details which Didion has used in her novel. Discuss why this event might be central to Didion's themes in Democracy.

2. Inez Victor is a study of the effect that being in the public eye has on a character. Considering the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Diana Princess of Wales, and other women subjected to the public glare through association with their husbands, attempt to analyze what Didion means when she suggests that the "major cost" of public life is "loss of memory."

3. Inez is the mother of two children, the twins Adlai and Jessie. How does being the product of a public, political up-bringing affect each of them?

4. Discuss the ambiguous identity of the narrator. How does the narrator function as a character in Democracy?

5. What, ultimately, is Didion saying about democracy in the novel?

Social Concerns

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Democracy, Joan Didion's fourth novel, published in 1984, takes a sardonic look at the relationship between politics and personal life. The tension between the public and private persona of the novel's main character, Inez Victor, is examined in the context of a life led in the glare of mass media. As the wife of an ambitious congressman, senator, and aspirant to the presidency, Inez has been groomed in playing to the gallery. She is not at all comfortable in this role.

The novel is at its most biting when Inez and Billy Dillon, her husband's political adviser and public relations operator, are goading one another. Although she appreciates Dillon's ironic abrasiveness rather more than her husband's woolly political jargon, Inez resents, for example, interviewers deciding in advance the angle of their profile on the basis of library cuttings. It is as if she has lost all personal claim to her past. Her own memory, and hence her history, have been fictionalized. The main events of the novel occur in 1975, the year of the United States's withdrawal from Vietnam. It is therefore impossible to read the story of Inez's marriage, and her affair with the elusive Jack Lovett, as pure personal drama.

Democracy, as the title implies, is also the story of the way in which a nation has lost touch with its own past and with the principles that once guided it. Many of those who commented on the novel when it was first published greeted it as Didion's best novel to date. It was seen as a book that combined the barbed observational precision of her journalism with the broader scope of the novelist. Others were put off by the tentative nature of its composition, and in particular by the intrusive voice of the narrator, who regularly informs the reader of directions previous versions of the book might have taken.
Democracy was published in 1984, but the major part of the narrative focuses on the previous decade. An important political theme—the existence of individual wheeler-dealers brokering deals with the connivance of government, and sometimes at the government's bequest—touches upon one of the major political stories of the 1980s: the Iran-Contra crisis.

When Didion chose to write explicitly about this story in her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, she set the events in 1984. Democracy's first readers were able to read the book with detail and background to the Iran-Contra events unfolding in real-time. Inevitably, early reviewers and commentators on the book drew attention to this. However, the primary political and social focus of the novel is still the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s.

From many points of view the 1970s was a featureless or transitional decade. One commentator, Peter Carroll, named his 1984 survey of the decade, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. During the first half of the 1970s, the cultural and political trends of the 1960s remained dominant. In the second half, many of the trends that were to characterize the 1980s began to manifest themselves. However, deeper analysis reveals it to be possibly the most important decade in the postwar history of the United States. Two ideological positions were challenged at the time. The first of these—the belief in the expansion of American influence overseas— had before been taken for granted by both Democrats and Republicans. The second— support for liberal civil rights programs— had been more rigorously debated. However, the legacy of the Lyndon Johnson administration, and the cultural climate of the closing years in the 1960s, seemed to protect such programs from attack. These basic principles of national self-belief were given a severe jolt by defeat in Vietnam. It was not so much the fact that America lost the war as the ignominious and chaotic nature of civilian withdrawal that dented national pride most profoundly.

The concept of "Manifest Destiny"—that Americans had been divinely chosen to spread their influence and belief in freedom of the individual to all parts of the globe—had been axiomatic in American political affairs since the 1840s. In the nineteenth century, this belief had mainly fed the frontier spirit during the period of westward expansion. In the twentieth century, and particularly after World War II, America had extended its influence overseas, such as in the Philippines. In the 1960s a further frontier had been confronted, with manned flights to outer space and the Moon.

In conquering this latter frontier, America was in direct competition with the Soviet Union, its Cold War enemy. Initially, involvement in Vietnam had been explicitly explained as a stand against communism and a defense of the free world. It had become complicated by America's importation of corporate capitalism into South Vietnam (so that business interests jockeyed for position with political and ethical factors) and, during the Richard Nixon administration, by increasing signs of detente between the two superpowers. At home presidential and national attention on the war was diverted by the Watergate affair, in which Nixon tried to cover up the illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D.C. The incident eventually led to Nixon's resignation.

Didion refers repeatedly in her novel to the exact circumstances of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975. The hectic and frantic helicopter flights out of Saigon are vividly described in a firsthand account by Stephen Klinkhammer, published in Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. In this account Klinkhammer repeatedly describes the withdrawal as "total chaos" and "really a mess." Further details from this and other firsthand accounts are also used by Didion. In the novel, there are several references to money changing hands, and to certain people profiting from the situation. Klinkhammer describes the vice-president of South Vietnam escaping with "an immense amount of gold bars." Didion implies that some American civilians also profited from the situation.

As reported in the June 4, 1973, edition of Time magazine, President Nixon issued a four-thousand-word statement attempting to explain his actions with regard to Watergate. This statement explicitly attempted to defend political espionage because of a climate in which sensitive political matters were brought into the open for the sake of openness. "I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in newspapers," Nixon is reported (in the same article) to have said to a rapturous audience of ex-P.O.W.s. And in the statement itself:

By mid-1969, my Administration had begun a number of highly sensitive foreign policy initiatives aimed at ending the war in Vietnam, achieving a settlement in the Middle East, limiting nuclear arms, and establishing new relationships among the great powers. These involved highly secret diplomacy. They were closely interrelated. Leaks of secret information about any one could endanger all. Exactly that happened. News accounts appeared in 1969 which were obviously based on leaks—some of them extensive and detailed—by people having access to the most highly classified security materials. There was no way to carry forward these diplomatic initiatives unless further leaks could be prevented.

In such a way did those at the helm in public life defend secret, undemocratic methods— in the name of the democracy that those methods and "diplomatic initiatives" so flagrantly flouted. There is not a polemical point running through Didion's novel relating to its title. Rather, she takes for granted her audience's experience of contemporary political life and allows readers to draw their own conclusions from the focus of the narrative. Didion was writing the novel from the perspective of a disenchanted Republican.

Literary Precedents

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A reading of Democracy, the 1880 novel by the nineteenth-century historian Henry Brooks Adams, helps to throw into sharper relief some of the cultural and political concerns which Didion's later novel of the same name explores. '

From Here to Eternity (1951), by James Jones, is a popular wartime novel set in Honolulu in the period leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Bibliography

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The Atlantic. CCLIII, May, 1984, p. 122.

Chicago Tribune. May 16, 1984, p. 19.

Ching, Stuart. “ ‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion’s Democracy.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Ching’s chapter discusses Didion’s portrayal of the Vietnam War in Democracy.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, May 16, 1984, p. 19.

Felton, Sharon. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. This text presents a sampling of the critical response to each of Didion’s books. One of these criticizes Didion for “borrowing” from her former novels.

Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. Although none of the pieces concerns Democracy directly, the collection is nevertheless useful for Didion’s essay “Why I Write,” three previously published interviews, and Victor Strandberg’s analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influence on Didion. (“Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer”).

Garis, Leslie. “Didion and Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage.” The New York Times Magazine, February 8, 1987, 18-24, 26, 52, 55, 58, 65. An excellent profile of Didion and her writer-husband John Gregory Dunne, focusing on their literary marriage, collaborative efforts as screenwriters, mutual support, and different backgrounds.

Henderson, Katherine Usher. “The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson, (also the author of Joan Didion (1981), appends comprehensive bibliographies of works by and about Didion to her useful essay.

Henderson, Katherine Usher. “Joan Didion: The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson explores the effects that Didion’s first-person narrator, named Didion, has on the story, particularly in terms of her relationship with Inez Victor.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, February 1, 1984, p. 97.

Library Journal. CIX, April 15, 1984, p. 821.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 15, 1984, p. 1.

Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 32.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, May 10, 1984, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 22, 1984, p. 1.

Newsweek. CIII, April 16, 1984, p. 86.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 17, 1984, p. 72.

Stout, Janis P. Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990. Stout points out that while Didion’s use of white space and short “stand-alone” sentences may at first appear to be a gimmick, it lends the novel’s events an appropriate urgency.

Tager, Michael. “The Political Vision of Joan Didion’s Democracy.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 31, no. 3 (1990): 173-184. Tager discusses the irony in Didion’s title, Democracy, and points out similarities between the events in the novel and the thinking behind the Iran-Contra scandal. Tager pays particular attention to the characters Harry Victor and Jack Lovett.

Time. CXXIII, May 7, 1984, p. 114.

The Washington Monthly. XVI, June, 1984, p. 58.

Washington Post Book World. April 15, 1984, p. 3.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Democracy in Atlantic Monthly, May, 1984, p. 122.

Stuart Ching, "A Hard Story to Tell—The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Deomocracy" in Fourteen Landing Zones—Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 180-87.

Thomas R. Edwards, "An American Education," in New York Review of Books, May 10, 1984, pp. 23-24.

Barbara Grizutti Harrison, compiler, "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect," in Off Center: Essays, Dial Press, 1980.

Stephen Klinkhammer, "The Fall of Saigon, April 1975," in Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-three American Soldiers Who Fought It, edited by Al Santoli, Random House, 1981, pp 252-56.

Thomas Mallon, review of Democracy, in The American Spectator, August, 1984, pp. 43-44.

Mary McCarthy, review of Democracy, in the New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, Sec 7, p. 1.

Alan Nadel, "Postwar America and the Story of Democracy," in Boundary 2, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 96-120.

"Nixon's Thin Defense The Need for Secrecy," Time, June 4, 1973, pp. 17-23.

Michael Tager, "The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy," in Critique, Vol XXI, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 173-84.

Janet Wiehe, review of Democracy, in Library Journal, April, 1984, pp 821-22.

For Further Study
Peter Carroll, in It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in the 1970s, Holt, 1984.
A full-length social and historical study of the 1970s.

Martha Duffy, review of Democracy, in Time, May 7,1984, p. 114.
This review criticizes Didion's placement of herself in the novel. Overall, Duffy considers the novel "flawed" yet "very fast and shrewd," especially in the depiction of the minor characters.

Sharon Felton, editor, The Critical Response to Joan Didion, (Critical Responses in Arts and Letters, No 8), Greenwood, 1993.
A very useful compilation of reviews and other critical responses to Didion's work.

Ellen G. Friedman, "The Didion Sensibility: An Analysis," in Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, Ontano Review Press, 1984.
Friedman argues that while Didion's characters are often unable to find meaning in their lives, they do have an "immense capacity for commitment and love," even when that love is doomed.

Kathenne Usher Henderson, "Joan Didion: The Bond between Narrator and Heroine in 'Democracy,'" in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp 69-86.
Henderson compares the character of the narrator and Inez Christian and argues that both search for meaning "in a world where society and politics are defined by artifice and self-seeking "

Al Santok, editor, Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-three American Soldiers Who Fought It, Random House, 1981.
Santoli's book was almost certainly used by Didion as source material for her portrayal of the chaos surrounding American withdrawal from Saigon.

Susan Stamberg, "Cautionary Tales," in Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, edited by Ellen G. Friedman, Ontario Review Press, 1984.
In this interview, Didion discusses her belief that "experience is largely meaningless" and talks about how that view has affected her novels.

Janis P. Stout, Strategies of Reticence Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter and Joan Didion, University Press of Virginia, 1990.
An example of an academic title placing Didion in the continuum of American female novelists.

Anne Tyler, review of Democracy, in New Republic, April 9, 1984, Vol. 190, pp. 35-36.
This review comments on the narrator as a character and on the fragmented structure of the novel.

Mark Royden Winchell, in Joan Didion, revised edition, Twayne, 1989.
A biographical and critical survey of Didion's career.

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