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...
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