Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

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Truth and Falsehood
Didion's self-conscious intrusion of herself, the author, into the novel's narrative is fundamental to one of the book's major themes: the degree to which meaning can be ascribed to events by telling a story. Linked to this theme is consideration of its mirror image: the degree to which meaning can be eroded by telling a story falsely. Didion is not simply experimenting with the narrative method, though she acknowledges that the reader has certain expectations, some of which may not be satisfied by her own peculiar narrative approach. Declaring that she understands traditional techniques, Didion writes in Book Two, Chapter 11, "I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said and know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know."

The reader has already been told that an earlier version of the novel was modeled on nineteenth-century family sagas. There was to be a great deal of family background and provincial Honolulu detail. The early focus of the book was to have been on the older generation, or so the "author" would have the reader believe. In fact, the final structure of the novel is so perfectly wedded to its themes that it is difficult to believe this other version of the book ever existed. The author's presence in the narrative, referring as it does to known details from Didion's own biography—her time at Vogue, her teaching at Berkeley—is intended to prompt the reader to ask: "Does that mean the other characters are real too?" The issue of the border between reality and fiction is also raised by Didion's specific references to media coverage of the political events in the novel, and the increasing impossibility of separating truth from falsehood. Nearly every character in the book is adept at projecting a phony veneer. Billy Dillon makes an art of it, Harry Victor is an impassively deceiving political animal. Jack Lovett is direct but secretive. Young Adlai pompously puts on airs. Perhaps the only character "true" to an inner self is Jessie, who has utterly rejected the values of her environment to become a waitress and heroin addict. At the end of the novel, she is declared to be well, living in Mexico City, and writing a novel.

American Dream
At the end of the 1970s, Didion was in a depressed mood. Her sour look at the 1960s—the essay collection The White Album—was published in 1979. Democracy, published five years later, was created out of the same feelings of pessimism. Thomas R. Edwards said in his New York Review of Books review of the novel, "The devastating personal and public consequences of the loss of history are Didion's theme." The scramble to get out of Saigon is implicitly seen as the deeply humiating consequence of a political system that has become riddled with humbug and secrecy. Inez, in her private life, has lost the thread of her existence and only barely clings to a sense of self by remembering simple moments from her childhood. The nation is in a similar state. Clinging to simplistic notions of manifest destiny and freedom of the individual, and led by politicians who mouth jargonized platitudes, the country has had to come to terms with defeat. The novel is not about the rights and wrongs of being in Vietnam. Its theme is the difficulty of holding on to the thread of history, the problem of constructing a continuous story in which the present is linked to the past. Its depiction of the unravelling of the American Dream makes it a resignedly philosophical book, rather than a fierce diatribe. Indeed, in its happy, epilogue-type ending, it is almost forgiving.

Search for Self
Having lost touch with her inner self for so much of the novel, Inez appears to have found fulfillment at the end by ministering to refugees in Kuala Lumpur. She has been through the mill, and only an act of selflessness such as she has undertaken can bring her satisfaction (for the rest of her days, it would appear, for "Kuala Lumpur is not likely to dispatch its last refugee in Inez's or my lifetime"). Inez's nun-like change of life is peculiar to her. The other survivors of the novel go on in ways that suggest that, for them, the search for self-fulfillment means simply carrying on. Billy Dillon has a new congressman to groom for the Presidency. Harry Victor has become a special envoy to the Common Market (what is now called the European Union). Adlai has a lowly clerical position, working for a federal judge. Jessie ("her weakness is for troubled capitals") is in Mexico City, living with a Newsweek reporter, and writing, of all things, a historical romance. In other words, the difficulties of modern life, of existence as an American citizen, have touched them all. The conclusion of the novel would therefore appear to be saying that only by consciously removing oneself from the structures of contemporary life can true self-discovery be made.

Betrayal
Most characters in the novel prefer to play the system—to stay within the structures and gain whatever personal advantage they can. If this means cheating, they cheat. If this means being secretive and underhanded, they are secretive and underhanded. If it means betraying those who are close to them, they betray them. Most of all they betray themselves, but only the thin-skinned, such as Inez, are aware of their self-betrayal. Political candidacy has so hardened Inez's husband that he can cheat on his wife and on his principles without the slightest sign of remorse. As far as politics are concerned, he has probably forgotten he ever had principles. Billy Dillon relishes the game so much—he is so slick a public relations man—that for him conventional morality is turned on its head. It would be a betrayal of the game to give the honest answer; it would be a betrayal to act naturally.

The wealth of the Christian family makes them paranoid about business betrayals. The important subplot concerning Wendell Omura and Inez's sister, Janet, adds further to the pervasiveness of the betrayal theme. In addition, the reader is never sure whether Jack Lovett is a secret agent, a loose cannon, or a mixture of the two. The appearance at the poolside, immediately following Lovett's fatal collapse, of the significantly-named Mr. Soebadio ("So-bad"), and the things that Mr. Soebadio just "happened to know" about getting a body out of Indonesia, suggest that Lovett belonged to a network of covert intelligence operators that made possible the breaching of protocol. The questions being asked about him at the end of his life, regarding possible profiteering from the American withdrawal from Vietnam, amount to a treasonous and undemocratic betrayal of his country.

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