Joan Didion 1934–
American novelist, essayist, journalist, scriptwriter, and short story writer.
Didion is respected both as a novelist and as a writer of personalized, journalistic essays. The disintegration of American morals and the cultural chaos upon which her essays comment are explored more fully in her novels, where the overriding theme is individual and societal fragmentation. Consequently, a sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work, and her novels have a reputation for being depressing and even morbid.
Didion's essays have appeared regularly in such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post, National Review, The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books and have been collected in two volumes, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). In the title essay of the latter volume, which concerns both the national chaos of the summer of 1968 and her own nervous breakdown at that time, Didion wrote, "an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." This essay illustrates the emphasis which Didion places in all her writing on the relationship between personal and national dissolution. Many critics hold Didion's essays in higher regard than her novels, but Didion claims that she "never wanted to be a journalist or a reporter" and that reportorial assignments serve for her primarily as sources of material for her novels.
Didion's first novel, Run River (1963), is a story of family strife set in California, Didion's native state. Lily McClellan, the central character, is typical of the complex, fully developed female protagonists Didion is noted for creating. These are women who try to find meaning in a world which no longer recognizes the importance of personal and collective morals and who attempt to maintain ties with a past which has no place in the present. Central to Run River is the portrayal of California as the last frontier of American idealism and the place most representative of the country's cultural disintegration. The vision of the United States as an amoral society is mirrored in the breakdown of a family. Didion uses this microcosmic technique in all of her fiction, including three short stories written in 1964 and collected in a limited edition volume, Telling Stories (1978). These stories are noted for their foreshadowing of the themes which appear in her later novels.
Geographical locations play an important role in emphasizing themes in Didion's fiction. The setting for Maria Wyeth's nihilistic crisis in Play It As It Lays (1970) is the artificial world of Hollywood, where people use one another to advance their own status. Boca Grande is the imaginary Latin American country in which Charlotte Douglas awaits the arrival of her outlaw daughter in A Book of Common Prayer (1977). A country without a past or a future, torn apart by frequent, violent uprisings, it mirrors Charlotte's internal disorder.
The political turbulence and violence which have lately been endemic in Latin America resurface in Salvador (1983), Didion's account of her two-week stay in El Salvador. The essays in Salvador are concerned not with facts about the conflict but with the fear that pervades daily existence in such a place. Like her earlier journalism, these essays are written from an extremely personal point of view through which Didion conveys her own fear and repulsion. In the novel Democracy (1984), Didion returns to her concern for the loss of traditional values and the absence of viable new ones. The story can be read on several levels: as a murder mystery, as a love story, and as an...
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exposure of the fraudulence of public life. The various threads interweave to form a picture of America's political decline and moral decay. Somewhat disarmingly, Didion provides the narrator with her own name, forcing the reader to question the fictional nature of the other characters.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)
Few contemporary American writers are "American" in all the ways that Joan Didion is. Although she has visited Europe often, she has never written an essay on Europe, nor do we find a single European character in her fiction. Not only are all of her major fictional characters born and raised in the United States; they also bear no marks of European nationality, carry no memory traces of European traditions. (p. 140)
In both her fiction and her essays, Didion sees the American character as often arrogant, often nostalgic, but invariably and quintessentially romantic, and thus deluded. Her more nostalgic characters are ever looking backward to the simplicity of childhood, finding there the source of the myth they are currently living: Maria Wyeth learned from her father that material success is life's easy and natural goal; Lily McClellan learned from her parents that no harm could come to her or her family in the Sacramento Valley. Her other characters have woven different myths: Charlotte Douglas, that all change is progress, that history moves people inevitably toward the greater good; Grace Strasser-Mendana, that every problem is susceptible of scientific solution. These illusions are characteristically (although not exclusively) American, and Didion also sees as characteristically American the tenacity with which they are held and the naiveté with which they are expressed.
Against these romantic myths Didion portrays the reality of the emptiness of material success, the disintegration of the family, and social and economic revolution that do not, in any moral sense at least, constitute progress. Her characters must either recognize this reality (a recognition that may produce madness, as it does in the case of Maria Wyeth) or be destroyed by it, as Lucille Miller and Charlotte Douglas are. Among Didion's heroines only Lily McClellan and Grace Strasser-Mendana have the resilience to confront the realities of chaos and evil and still find something in life worth affirming.
Seeing herself as "American" as anyone, Didion is constantly testing her own illusions against reality…. Although brought up with the same illusions as many of the people she writes about, Didion, unlike most of them, is ultimately an antiromantic realist.
Didion's writings are American in their characters, in the myths by which these characters try to live their lives, and in their tension between a vision of nature and God as benevolent and a conflicting vision of nature and the supernatural as fraught with danger and evil. Didion sees in Americans the dissonance produced by a naive confidence that they have a covenant with God coexisting with a fear of omnipresent evil and imminent doom; stemming from our Puritan heritage, this dissonance is familiar to readers of nineteenth-century American literature, for it is a dominant note in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville. (pp. 140-42)
Nature is sometimes beautiful in Didion's writings …, but it is always latent with terror as well, for it can subdue man, reducing him to insignificance. Like the Mississippi River in Mark Twain's Huck Finn, the Sacramento River in Run River represents not only time, but also the power and mystery of nature to which man is subject. The forces of nature in Didion's writings—the Santa Ana winds, a forest fire burning out of control—often have the majestic, destructive power that Melville attributed to the great white whale. As Ishmael wonders whether the destruction of the Pequod reflects upon the evil of Moby Dick or the evil living in the sailors' hearts, so does Didion stress the same mystery…. Like the heroes of Hawthorne and Melville, Didion's heroines inhabit a world in which good and evil are not merely social or political, but part of the impenetrable universe itself.
Whereas Didion certainly sees the subjects of her fiction and essays as American, she would probably be surprised to hear her work described as "woman's literature," especially since she has publically rejected the tenets of the women's movement. Yet all three of her novels are dominated by a woman's point of view, and all three portray in detail women's feelings about experiences that are exclusively feminine: childbirth, motherhood, abortion, menstruation, sexual submission to male demands. The relationship between mother and daughter is important in all three, and overshadows all other bonds in Play It As It Lays…. All of Didion's heroines are mothers, and all are deeply involved with their children.
Although men in Didion's fiction often lack the power to express love or other emotion, they have a power to act, to change the real world, that women do not. (pp. 142-44)
Didion's women are fully realized characters; we may or may not like them, but we understand why they behave as they do. Her male characters are often shadowy by comparison; the reasons for their actions are often far from clear. Everett McClellan is convincing in many parts of Run River, but we never understand why, given his eagerness to settle down and become a rancher, he enlists in the army, leaving Lily alone with two babies and a querulous old man. Leonard Douglas is superb as a witty, harassed lawyer, but his behavior at crucial points in A Book of Common Prayer is also puzzling. He clearly cares enough about Charlotte to keep track of her, to go to New Orleans when their baby is born; why on earth does he allow her to drift about Central America with a dying baby? On one level the answer to these questions is obvious: Didion wished to manipulate the plots of the novels to isolate her heroines. But she could have given her male characters more plausible motives for their behavior, especially in the case of Everett, whose point of view dominates whole sections of the novel.
Didion's fictional women engage her immense talents as a realistic novelist; she draws each of them with fine, sharp brush strokes that reveal every dimension of their personalities, every connection between character and action. Although her men cannot be called flat characters, they do not fully compel the reader's credence, for their behavior is often inconsistent with their character as Didion has presented it.
A few feminist critics rejected Didion's first two novels because Lily and Maria are passive, traditional women who yearn for the stability and emotional closeness of the family, submit to men sexually, and, with the exception of their mothers, are uncomfortable with other adult women. However, feminist criticism today is less likely to dictate to writers the kinds of characters they should create. In "Women's Literature," Elizabeth Janeway sensibly suggests that women's literature is not confined to that written by avowed feminists, but rather includes all literature that presents "women's experience from within," describing and evaluating it "in terms which can be various and individual but which are inherently the product of women's lives." Didion's fiction fits this definition…. (pp. 144-45)
While Didion's experience as a woman has been transformed and expressed through her fictional characters, her essays, with few exceptions, are not written from a woman's perspective. The voice in the essays is that of an American, a Californian, a writer, even a "migraine personality," but seldom a woman writing of explicitly feminine experience. There are a few exceptions: "John Wayne: A Love Song" could not have been written by a man, and one of the themes of "On Going Home" is the double mother-daughter relationship. Yet nowhere in the essays do we find what appears everywhere in the fiction, what Didion has called "the irreconcilable difference" of being a woman: "that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death." Female experience as Didion conceives of it is not only personal and sexual, but also uncontrolled. In her fiction she can distance herself from and exercise control over this experience in a way that would be impossible to achieve in her autobiographical essays.
Although not written from the particular perspective of a woman, Didion's essays appeal to most feminists for several reasons. They assume that a woman is just as involved in the larger society as a man and that her ability to observe and analyze that society is as keen as his. Many of them belong to the journalist's tradition of aggressive, even intrusive reporting. They embody many qualities traditionally considered "masculine": bluntness, precision, objectivity, and a complete absence of sentimentality. One must be glad that Didion does not restrict herself to feminine experience in her essays; although many women are currently writing about every aspect of women's experience, there are few writers—male or female—with her dramatic ability to present and evaluate American culture.
In both her essays and her fiction Didion seeks to render the moral complexity of contemporary American experience, especially the dilemmas and ambiguities resulting from the erosion of traditional values by a new social and political reality. To this end, she violates the conventions of traditional journalism whenever it suits her purpose, fusing the public and the personal, frequently placing herself in an otherwise objective essay, giving us her private and often anguished experience as a metaphor for the writer, for her generation, and sometimes for her entire society.
In her fiction, on the other hand, Didion has found that a traditional form and structure better suit her purpose. Unlike many other contemporary novelists, she creates real settings, characters that behave with some consistency, plots that have a beginning, middle, and end. In her few pieces of literary criticism Didion defends these traditions against the "new fiction" of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Bruce Jay Friedman. Lacking plot, structure, or consistent point of view, the new fiction, Didion feels, allows the author to abnegate his responsibility to make a moral statement…. (pp. 145-47)
In several different pieces she cites Madame Bovary as a model to be emulated: realistic in its smallest detail, traditional in structure and plot, it is a model that Didion aspires to, for it is the kind of novel that she believes comes closest to the truth. When she speaks of the truth, Didion thinks not of a political or religious truth—of any ideology—but of a setting forth of moral ambiguity, an ordering of life's moral complexity. To this end, style and artifice are not the enemies of truth, but the means to approach it…. (p. 147)
Implicit in Didion's view of the writer's responsibility is her conviction that, however multiple and ambiguous it may be, truth exists and can be approached by the writer with the courage and skill to project a coherent, realistic vision. Her own vision reveals to us the moral condition of contemporary Americans, living by illusions as fragile as fine china, clinging to shards of broken dreams, yet often redeemed by an immense potential for love and commitment. Thus, while preternaturally attuned to every false note in American culture, Didion yet holds out to us the possibility of integrity, integrity based on rigorous and continual self-scrutiny. "Style is character," she has said. The care that she devotes to every paragraph, the years spent on a single novel, the endless revisions, the novels and essays begun and laid aside—all attest to her struggle for integrity. We accept her criticism of us because it stems from the same drive, "to fight lying all the way." For Didion, integrity of style and integrity of character are one. (pp. 147-48)
Katherine Usher Henderson, in her Joan Didion, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, 164 p.
El Salvador calls everything into question. Among foreign visitors there is an endemic paranoia, a profound sense that every moment harbours the possibility of a violent death. Deploying her full rhetorical weaponry, Joan Didion's [Salvador] takes us on a journey to the heart of the Salvadorean darkness. It evokes the unspeakable insanity effected by a well-intentioned imperialism gone terribly wrong….
Her critics will object that two weeks is insufficient time to make an expert of anyone. The objection is valid; but it entirely misconstrues Ms Didion's purpose. Salvador deliberately refrains from offering an economic, social or political analysis of the causes of the war; and in this sense, admittedly, it has only a partial truth to tell. It concentrates instead on capturing the atmosphere of a particularly horrific place at a particularly horrific time, to the exclusion of past or future concerns.
Dissolving the simple dichotomy of Left and Right, the book possesses a remarkable capacity for blending penetrating social documentary with the literature of apocalypse…. It constitutes a black tourist guide through the noche obscura of the Salvadorean nightmare: the apparently safe Sheraton Hotel, where two US agrarian advisers were assassinated; the death dumps at El Playon and the Puerta del Diablo; the city morgue. (p. 23)
This is a powerful and highly articulate indictment of the pervasive political repression which has become institutionalised in El Salvador today. This indictment reaches its highest pitch in Joan Didion's description of the unfinished cathedral in San Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was drilled through the heart with a .22-calibre dumdum bullet while saying mass. (pp. 23-4)
David Leppard, "Salvadorean Nights," in The Listener, Vol. 109, No. 2806, April 28, 1983, pp. 23-4.
Salvador is an exhaustive and picturesque catalogue of all the vices of Salvadoran society, juxtaposed with descriptions of the relentlessly optimistic posturing of U.S. embassy officials in San Salvador and the staff of our military and AID missions. Miss Didion utilizes her pen as a sort of zoom lens, shifting rapidly and in close focus from decomposing corpses on a country road to the sinister features of troglodyte generals and corrupt politicians, from the squalor of rural villages to the false glitter of roller discos and Miss Universe pageants. Folded into these sketches … are excerpts from the U.S. and Salvadoran press, from official documents, and also from "documents" of less readily ascertainable authority.
Since Miss Didion is a writer of exceptional talent, the impact is precisely what is intended: to convince us that El Salvador is the quintessential Heart of Darkness—a black hole into which even the best of deeds and intentions are bound to disappear…. Miss Didion does not believe that things would get better if the United States abandoned El Salvador—indeed, quite possibly they would get considerably worse. But she wishes us to know that this is the nature of the beast; once we have absorbed this knowledge, we need not trouble our hearts (or our consciences) about the future.
Obviously, this is a far more alluring position for an intellectual to adopt than the more chancy "progressive" notions about El Salvador mindlessly retailed by radical nuns, out-of-work diplomats, and "peace" activists—with Miss Didion, at least, one is insured against any eventual embarrassments. Small wonder that Salvador has been greeted with almost unreserved praise by the prestige press, including reviewers who did not particularly like her earlier work, A Book of Common Prayer, a novel that was far more sophisticated in its views of Latin America (and, also, more mordant in its depiction of American liberals) than Salvador.
With Salvador, however, there are two big problems. One has to do with the facts, the other with Joan Didion. There are some serious inaccuracies in the text, and many, many more half-truths. (p. 66)
What is even more disturbing about Salvador than Miss Didion's disingenuous use of facts and fugitive quotations is the way in which she makes the tiny republic of El Salvador into a mirror reflecting her own basic contempt for liberal democracy and—why not say it?—the American way of life….
Perhaps the most outrageous passage in the entire book is the one mockingly describing a large American-style shopping mall in downtown San Salvador…. (p. 68)
Although this passage has been singled out for special admiration by reviewers who share its attitude of sneering disdain, Joan Didion is nevertheless right: beach towels with maps of Manhattan are the future for which El Salvador "presumbly [is] being saved." They represent choice and opportunity, prosperity and freedom—things Miss Didion possesses in sufficient abundance to hold them cheap, particularly when others reach out for them. Her disparaging comments about elections and land reform, her thinly-veiled clericalism, and her contempt for the middle class and its works all come together here. (p. 69)
El Salvador is a country with more than its share of inequality and injustice, and constitutional democracy—even in the limited Latin American sense—may never "take" there. But it is one thing to acknowledge these harsh realities and seek to work around them; another to write off an entire country, along with one's own national values. The latter spirit is the spirit of Salvador, of Miss Didion, and—so it would appear—of the literary culture in which she makes her home. (pp. 69-70)
Mark Falcoff, "Two Weeks," in Commentary, Vol. 75, No. 5, May, 1983, pp. 66, 68-70.
[The] apocalyptic obsession of Reagan and others before him has been usually exported [to Central America] without the knowledge and approval of most of the American people, many of whom would oppose its imposition if only they knew that such criminal stupidity ran counter to the interests of their own nation. In Salvador Joan Didion seems to be making this point; elsewhere in the rush of her stylish prose such basic truths, which her readers need to know, are missing. As a journalist I can understand that perhaps only an exceptional novelist can encapsulate an epoch; and in this respect Salvador is a lost opportunity. (p. 20)
Joan Didion's book is certainly compulsive reading as a portrait of the macabre. But as it progresses the doubts and questions pile up. What is Joan Didion for? What is she against? Indeed, why did she go to El Salvador? If, as I read in the Washington Post, the book is merely about the 'mechanism of fear' and how it worked on the author herself, then perhaps it succeeds within those confined limits: that is, as an indulgent literary exercise in atmospherics and little else. My difficulty is that, having been to El Salvador and to many places like it, I have minimal interest in The Perils of Joan who … becomes the recipient of myriad, menacing Latin stares and the captive, it would appear, of the American embassy and of Reagan's man with the death squads. His name is Deane Hinton and, according to the author, he gives 'the sense of a man determined not to crack'.
Alas, my negative thoughts persist when I read that Joan has described her El Salvador sojourn as 'a total immersion experience'. In Marin County, California, HQ of the Me Generation, a Total Immersion Experience might well be performed, if not in El Salvador then in a hot tub with company; and the suspicion nags that this book is the Me Generation having one more vicarious fling. And I would not so much mind that had the author taken off her shades just long enough during her two weeks' Total Immersion Experience to observe the lives of the ordinary people of El Salvador and their epic, melancholy struggle to defend themselves against Reagan, Deane Hinton, goons, malnutrition, malaria, and the economic legacies of the likes of Major-General Smedley Butler and his Marines.
If the author went to the trouble of trembling at road-blocks, why did she not venture into the heart of El Salvador—into the villages where people's courage and tenacity to survive ought to be humbling or inspiring to an outsider from Consumerworld. Some of the bravest people I have met live in El Salvador; but Joan Didion gives us no sense of their fight…. If these remarkable common people exist at all in her book, they are merged with all the other demons in her noche obscura, in which everybody is sinister. She sees El Salvador as so many others saw Vietnam—as a war, a 'domino', a 'nightmare'—almost always as a threat to themselves, almost never as a community of human beings. (pp. 20-1)
Did the author talk to the Slum Dwellers' Association or to the Christian Peasants' Association, or to any of the numerous groups which comprise the resistance and have done so, like the two mentioned, for half a century? Assaulting the liberal emotions, turning the centre-left stomach, pricking the conservative conscience, having fun with fear, will no longer do. Those who wrung their hands over the 'nightmare' in Vietnam did all that; and the nightmare went on. (p. 21)
John Pilger, "Having Fun with Fear," in New Statesman, Vol. 105, No. 2720, May 6, 1983, pp. 20-1.∗
In places where life is reasonably ordered, the violence that rages in the Third World is masked by a propensity to integrate it in some favorite sequence of meaning…. It is rarely, if ever, depicted as a terrifying impasse, as horror, a catastrophe of meaning. The politician's speech, the journalist's story, the social scientist's account do not reach the "heart of darkness." Only a writer in full command of her craft can recreate it on the page. Joan Didion's Salvador, a lean and splendid book, pierces ideological fictions and takes us to the outer and almost unbearable limits of what we call "politics," "society," and "culture"—to the point where those rational notions turn into terror, obscenity, and hallucination….
From the immense distance of definitions, terror appears as the arbitrary use, by organs of political authority, of severe coercion against individuals or groups, the credible threat of such use, or the arbitrary liquidation of such individuals and groups. But from the writer's notes something more ominous makes itself felt that defies all definitions: a process of corrosion that eats the soul as relentlessly as it consumes bodies….
If this short book seems bottomless, it is because Joan Didion's phrases bring forth the peculiar state of hypnotic abeyance that is the essence of terror. She achieves this effect through the careful notation of detail and the unabated watchfulness over language. She refuses both analysis and synthesis, she rejects abstractions and eschews conclusions. Instead, she reports on these as discursive operations performed by near and distant actors while they seek to mask, or neutralize, or routinize a truth that is everywhere in evidence but impossible to face: objective and abject, like a corpse. (p. 387)
When Joan Didion paints the paraphernalia of terror—the vehicles, uniforms, weapons, the methods of extrajudicial execution, the dumping sites, the local words that are as twisted as the bodies …—the effect is not mysterious, as in a chiaroscuro, but hyperreal. She does not give us a plot to unravel, an interpretive key to unlock the horror, a solution: "This was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all." She keeps the narrative on a plane where incidents and objects multiply and cram the space. The only rule that governs situations seems to be the lewd proliferation of the lurid….
Joan Didion tells us something about terror that escapes other accounts and most analyses, namely, that it is obscene, for obscene is anybody and anything that has lost distance, perspective, a sense of its own limits, something exiled from its natural conditions of meaning, radically out of context….
There is a linguistic supplement to this plethora of abjections: it is comprised of fragments from the discourse of the actors—fragments from President Magaña and from President Reagan, from present Ambassador Hinton and former Ambassador White, from embassy officials, Salvadoran officers, from the grandson of a legendary dictator, from nuns and priests and university professors. Didion places the quotations side by side, or next to the brute facts of life and death, so skillfully that, without recourse to commentary, they testify to the mendacious loquacity of a condition where language is called upon, most of the time, not to illuminate truth but to dream it as it ought to be, to improve its appearance, to formulate ramshackle mythologies, to lure us into the realm of shadow-boxing, of pure symbolic action. (p. 388)
There is much in this book that will provide ammunition to thoughtful critics of the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. But I should like to suggest that, in the end, this is beside the point. It would be a disservice to Joan Didion's real achievement to reduce her statements to even the most reasoned critical analyses of the current political situation in El Salvador. Even the most lucid political commentary belongs only to the moment. A good book belongs to literature and, as such, survives, triumphs over the occasion of its production…. Salvador has the unmistakable aura of true literature in its prosody, in its imagery, its testimony.
Because it is written at a slight angle from more conventional discourses, because it flies too slowly, sometimes too high, some other times too low over that little nation that is smaller than San Diego county but nonetheless commands the attention of the world, this book is strangely remote from the bustle of the moment. It thus hints at other truths than those we negotiate and ingest every day. (p. 389)
Juan E. Corradi, "A Culture of Fear," in Dissent, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 387-89.
The literary critic Frederick Karl was recently quoted as saying that Joan Didion "diminishes whatever she touches." It's a remark that becomes more interesting when you twist it into a compliment: Joan Didion writes from a vantage point so remote that all she describes seems tiny and trim and uncannily precise, like a scene viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. That cleared space where she stands, that chilly vacuum that could either be intellectual irony or profound depression, gives her a slant of vision that is arresting and unique.
Democracy, her fourth novel, is narrated by an "I" who is apparently Joan Didion herself, untransformed….
And what is her story? Well, Jack Lovett, a world traveler whose business dealings don't bear close investigation, meets Inez Christian in Hawaii on her seventeenth birthday. They have a brief affair and then part. Inez marries Harry Victor, who eventually becomes a U.S. Senator. Over the next twenty years, she and Jack Lovett run into each other by chance here and there, in various far-flung corners of the world. There's a hushed-up scandal when Inez's father murders Inez's sister and the sister's male guest. Inez abandons the role of politician's wife and goes away with Jack Lovett. There's the beginning of another scandal when Jack Lovett's business dealings come into question, but by then he has died of natural causes.
End of story.
Some story, you say.
But what gives these "fitful glimpses" (as Joan Didion calls them) shape and direction is the eye that observes them—that eye looking through the wrong end of the telescope. In many ways, the strongest character in this novel is the narrator herself, with her cataloguing of clues, her conjectures, her obsessive fascination with the various participants. We never physically see her or understand her position, exactly … but she casts an aura of loneliness over all she describes. She might be a foreigner, even an observer from another planet—one so edgy and alert that she ends up knowing more about our own world than we know ourselves. (p. 35)
Now, the question is, what does all this amount to? Are freeze frames of a handful of people at various moments over a couple of decades really going to come to anything? Where do we get a sense of motion?
But it may be that the reader's journey here is not toward a happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, but toward adopting the narrator's vision of the world. In this vision, every act is random and baffling, "circumstantial," and human beings are ciphers to be studied as intently as distant stars.
You close the book and say, "Was that it?" And then you say, "Well, really." And then you go off, feeling vaguely dissatisfied, and look for something with a little more point to it. But later, bits and pieces of Democracy come back to you—pictures, still photos. (p. 36)
Anne Tyler, "Affairs of State," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 14, April 9, 1984, pp. 35-6.
"Democracy," a novel, takes its title from Henry Adams's "Democracy," subtitled "An American Novel."…
I have found it hard to make out what connection there can be between Joan Didion's "Democracy," opening with a memory of the pink dawns of early atomic weapons tests in the Pacific, and Henry Adams's "Democracy," which deals with the dirty politics of the second Grant Administration. And, leaving aside Henry Adams, I do not quite see how democracy comes into the Didion tale except for the fact that two Democratic politicians (both Vietnam-war opponents) and a C.I.A. man play large roles in it. For Adams, "democracy" had become a coarse travesty of the ideal of popular rule, indissociable from the gravy train and the grease spots on the Congressman's vest. For Miss Didion too, the term is rich in irony, though corruption by now is so universal that it can no longer be identified with a party or tendency or grand ideal betrayed. (p. 1)
The Didion novel, which arrives at its climax in March 1975, while the character "Joan Didion" is teaching … at Berkeley and the Vietnam War is winding down, can be described as a murder story set in Honolulu—a murder without a mystery in that the elderly "blueblood" killer of a nisei politician and of his own "socialite" daughter proudly announces culpability from his room in the downtown Y.M.C.A. I have put "blue-blood" and "socialite" in quotation marks to indicate the colonial, road-show quality of the island's palmy social life, which always seems to have an airport (once dockside) lei around its neck. (pp. 1, 18)
As I say, in "Democracy" no mystery is made about the murder…. "Cards on the table," the author declares, introducing herself to the reader on page 17. Yet despite an appearance of factuality achieved by the author's total recall of names, middle names, dates, by perfect chronometry of arrival and departure times and stereophonic dialogue of imaginary newsworthy figures, "Democracy" is deeply mysterious, cryptic, enigmatic, like a tarot pack or most of Joan Didion's work.
One way of looking at that work is to decide that it has been influenced by movies; hypnotized by movies would be more appropriate…. Like the camera, this mental apparatus does not think but projects images, very haunting and troubling ones for the most part, precisely because they are mute. Even when sonorized, as has happened here, they remain silent and somewhat frightening in their stunned aversion from thought. This powerful relation to film, stronger than that of any other current author, must account for her affinity with Joseph Conrad, whose tales and romances … seem to have anticipated film, like an uncanny prophecy.
What was new in Conrad was the potency of an image or images, often inexplicable in purely reasonable terms…. Certainly one senses Conrad in Miss Didion's "Democracy"; he has passed through this territory, making trail blazes. The novel seems closer to "Heart of Darkness" than the literal-minded movie "Apocalpyse Now" did, which was also trying to talk about the end of Vietnam and unspeakable "horrors," located upriver in the film. One odd development in "Democracy," though, as compared with any Conrad text, is that the narrator—in Conrad usually the immensely talkative and indeed (dare I say it?) too garrulous Marlow—has been virtually silenced. What the character "Joan Didion" offers us is mainly brisk narration, impossible to construe as comment or rumination, unlike Marlow's chatter, but I shall come back to "Joan Didion" later.
For the moment, I want to forget about the cinematic influences and effects—the freezes and rapid fades and the humming sound track that make themselves felt in whatever she has done since "Run River" (1963)—and concentrate on examining the construction of this particular book as book. Yet here too I am reminded of what one might call an allied art. The construction of "Democracy" feels like the working out of a jigsaw puzzle that is slowly being put together with a continual shuffling and re-examination of pieces still on the edges or heaped in the middle of the design. We have started with a bit of sky (those pink dawns); now and then, without hurry, a new piece is carefully inserted, and the gentle click of cardboard locking into cardboard is felt—no forcing. Despite the fact that the pieces are known to us, face down and face up, almost from the start, there is an intense suspense, which seems to be causeless …, suspense arising from the assembly of the pieces, that is, from the procedures of narrative themselves. "This is a hard story to tell," the author says on page 15. It is a hard story to listen to, boring in the primal sense of the word—"making a hole in or through with a drill." Some parts of it are painful in their own right, shocking …, but what mainly hurts is the drilling, the repetition, in short, the suspense of waiting for the narrative line to be carefully played out, the odd-shaped piece inserted. (p. 18)
What is a live fact—Joan Didion—doing in a work of fiction? She must be a decoy set there to lure us into believing that Inez Victor is real in some ghostly-goblin manner, as real anyway as the author herself is. For that purpose, the classic narrator, the fictive "I," could not serve, evidently. Or just seemed dated in a deconstructing universe. Before the end of the novel, in a flash-forward, the author is represented as actually flying to Kuala Lumpur to see Inez Victor, who by that time is working in a camp for refugees, having separated from Harry Victor and their children, Adlai and Jessie, and all their world. Does this mirror a real journey that Joan Didion has pressed into service to meet a fictional need (to end the novel), as other authors are apt to do with loose material that happens to be lying around?
In current theories of fiction, much attention is given to the role of the narrator, considered as sheer verbal device, without correspondence to any anterior reality. Yet if I understand Joan Didion right, here she is doing the exact opposite, inserting an attestable fact—herself—into the moving sands of fiction. I am not sure what the result of the undertaking is. It may well be to diminish the fictional likelihood of "Inez Victor" while leaving the reader to wonder about the reality of "Joan Didion."
In fact, the problem of "originals" haunts this peculiar fiction, intentionally, I should guess. It is an eerie lighting effect, making the strange appear familiar and the familiar strange. At times Harry Victor seems meant to recall one of the Kennedys (most likely Bobby) or all of them. (pp. 18-19)
I have noted the cinematic quality of Joan Didion's work and the relation of the present construction to puzzles, specifically of the jigsaw kind. I might also have compared the narrative line to a French seam—one big stitch forward, one little stitch back, turn over and repeat on other side of cloth—valued in dressmaking for its strength and for hiding the raw edges of the cloth. Still another set of correspondences is discernible in literary reminiscences and allusions, beginning, obviously, with the title: Henry Adams, Hemingway, Mailer, Orwell, Wallace Stevens, Delmore Schwartz, A. E. Housman, W. H. Auden, Kierkegaard. The ending must be a pointed reference to Eliot, and on page 16 one has met some lines in italics followed by the words "So Trollope might begin this novel."
This is part of the book's knowingness—not an altogether pleasant quality. The knowingness makes a curious accompaniment to the celebrity theme, for Joan Didion clearly does not care for the celebrity circuit and one of the attractions Jack Lovett has for her—and possibly for Inez too—is that he is not in Who's Who, does not have his name on his whiskey bottle in a Hong Kong restaurant….
Still, to be known and to be knowing are not so far apart. Everyone in "Democracy" is some kind of insider. It is not merely the Harry Victors and their entourages; the author herself has some complicity in the insider-outsider game—seven years at Vogue leave their mark. In the milieu of this "Democracy," not just people but places and times can be poker chips….
For all its technical mastery and on-target social observation (Miss Didion is wonderful not only at hearing her characters but at naming them—take "Inez"), there is a depthlessness in "Democracy" as there was in "A Book of Common Prayer." We would need to know a Harry Victor from the inside looking out to feel his real hollowness; it is tiring just to listen to his sound track playing over and over. This is true for most of the characters, though with the bit parts the effect is stunning…. To my mind, the best character is Billy Dillon, Harry Victor's aide, who has the good fortune—which is also the reader's—of being a consciously funny man.
But, finally, what is one to make of Jack Lovett, inscrutable by profession from beginning to end? Whatever one decides, one must applaud the author's nerve in making a C.I.A. agent in his 60's the love interest and parfit gentil knight of her book. Actually, this is a romantic, even a sentimental novel, with the C.I.A. man and the Congressman's wife as a pair of eternally faithful lovers, constantly separated and constantly reunited till his death…. That Inez Victor (and her creator) clearly prefer a C.I.A. agent to a famous liberal senator may indicate a preference for action over talk or just a distaste for United States hypocrisy—the larger aims of Harry Victor and of "the store" being at bottom the same. Maybe those are the "cards on the table" that were promised when we first met "Joan Didion" in that early chapter.
Possibly. As I said to start with, the book is deeply enigmatic. For the reader willing to sweat over them, there are a number of half-buried puzzles….
Perhaps all the elements in the puzzle are out of movies. Perhaps Joan Didion is just wishing that she were an old-time screenwriter rather than a novelist. If that is it, I am irritated. To be portentous, one ought to be deeper than that. I feel a bit like Alice when she heard the Duchess speak calmly of "a large mustard mine near here." Of course, the Duchess could speak calmly because that was Wonderland. And possibly that is the right way to take this latest Joan Didion—calmly, not setting out to solve sphinxine riddles, not looking for influences and analogues, not hoping for the author's sake to exorcise the malign shadow of Hemingway, certainly not asking how Wendell Omura got on Janet's lanai or how, precisely, old Hem, than whom no more elitist writer ever took up pen, could illustrate in his sentence structure any idea of democracy. Just let it go. (p. 19)
Mary McCarthy, "Love and Death in the Pacific," in The New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, pp. 1, 18-19.
Joan Didion is one of those writers—Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Gore Vidal are others—who are so good at the higher journalism that their status as novelists may sometimes seem insecure. Do they, we may wonder, keep writing fiction out of professional pride, as if only the novel could truly certify their literary talent and seriousness? Are not their novels, however fine, shadowed by a suspicion, however baseless, that the form is not quite the best form for such powers?
Certainly Democracy, Didion's new novel, opens with an ominously awkward display of self-consciousness about the basic moves of fictional narrative:
The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see. Something to behold. Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said. He said to her. Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor. Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
This self-revising fumbling with the identity cards that novels are supposed to slip quietly under the door seems a little like having a magician confess that the rabbit came not from the empty hat but from inside his vest. "This is a hard story to tell," complains the last sentence of this first chapter, and the manner of this opening makes one wonder if for Didion the old game is still good enough to play….
Despite the authorial shufflings, a story begins to get told, as if impelled by the stubborn conventions of narrative itself, the odd necessity of continuing once you have, for whatever reason, started. The devices of anti-fiction don't disappear. "Call me the author," the second chapter begins, followed by a glimpse of a writer named "Joan Didion" (done in the manner not of Melville but, of all people, Trollope) who is struggling to get her story started: "Consider any of these things long enough and you will see that they tend to deny the relevance not only of personality but of narrative, which makes them less than ideal images with which to begin a novel, but we go with what we have."
So indeed we do, but counter-illusion has begun to generate its own, second-order kind of credence—if this narrator is the Joan Didion who went to Berkeley, worked for Vogue in 1960, now lives in Los Angeles but travels to far-off places as a reporter, and so on, then Inez Christian Victor and Jack Lovett and the other people in this book may be real after all, since Joan Didion says she knew them. Maybe she does have nothing up her sleeve.
For a critic this is good material, but most readers of novels want the puppets to come to life, and in Democracy they blessedly do so before long, despite the continuing maneuverings of the author….
The devastating personal and public consequences of the loss of history are Didion's theme. The significant relations of events wash away in a flood of facts, those equally circumstantial details that news reporting democratically represents as being about equal in import….
Vietnam is the most dramatic recent evidence of where an appetite for imperium can lead democracy; but the larger subject must be the evanescence of thought and moral judgment in a world of ceaselessly unsortable information. (p. 23)
Democracy is absorbing, immensely intelligent, and witty, and it finally earns its complexity of form. It is indeed "a hard story to tell," and the presence in it of "Joan Didion" trying to tell it is an essential part of its subject. Throughout one senses the author struggling with the moral difficulty that makes the story hard to tell—how to stop claiming what Inez finally relinquishes, "the American exemption" from having to recognize that history records not the victory of personal wills over reality (as people like Harry Victor want to suppose), but the "undertow of having and not having, the convulsions of a world largely unaffected by the individual efforts of anyone in it."
This grim message supports the assumption that a novel by another American pessimist, Henry Adams's Democracy, is somewhere in Didion's mind…. Both novels deal with the perilous maturing of a political culture which the national rhetoric ceaselessly represents as vigorous and young….
With due allowance for the distances between Quincy and Sacramento, Henry Adams and Joan Didion may have something in common. In both of them, irony and subtlety confront a chaotic new reality that shatters the orderings of simpler, older ways. Both face such a world with an essentially aristocratic weapon, the power to dispose language and thought, at least, against those empowered to dispose just about everything else. And both, I suppose, understand that such a weapon is only defensive, and that it may not suffice. (p. 24)
Thomas R. Edwards, "An American Education," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 8, May 10, 1984, pp. 23-4.
The steady drizzle of bitter memories in [Democracy] keeps directing the reader to "one night outside Honolulu in the spring of 1975 … when the C130s and the C141s were already shuttling between Honolulu and Anderson and Clark and Saigon … bringing out the dependents, bringing out the dealers, bringing out the money, bringing out the pet dogs and the sponsored bar girls and the porcelain elephants…." From this string of scornful images we can tell that the American system of government is going to have the ignominious fate of disappointing Joan Didion.
It's not the first time we have been privy to Didion's vexations of the spirit, and we have by now grown accustomed to the tone of sad concern for our national well-being that insidiously infiltrates so much of her prose. She collects (and sells) ominous symptoms as if they were sea shells. She becomes mournful over trifles, and has obviously persuaded herself that mourning becomes her. Indeed, she first hoisted herself to public attention on the bootstraps of one of the world's best-known pessimistic poems, Yeats' "The Second Coming," explaining that she called her book of essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem because "The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun: these have been my points of reference."
Play It As It Lays, Didion's second novel, was fraught with implications that American society is atomized and loveless. Packed, as if it were a carry-on airplane bag, with divorce, drug addiction, abortion, a neurally handicapped child, vagrant sex, sadism, and mental breakdown, the book testified more clearly to ailments within than without. Why did this series of disasters recommend themselves to her imagination as a likely fictional plot? Although pessimism is no doubt an inalienable right, we sense that hers is not only borrowed but unearned.
Primed for disabuse, Didion has swooped like a homing pigeon toward those places that confirm it…. [Accusatory] rhetoric is pretty much the extent to which she responds to any social predicament that distresses her…. Yet to many readers (and reviewers), eager for the kicks of dissent without its grubby chores, that posture passes for genuine political involvement and, worse still, political wisdom.
In fact, apart from her two weeks in El Salvador … and her interviews with sometime revolutionary celebrities like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, Joan Didion has few credentials as political journalist, and even fewer as moral critic. For Democracy she shamelessly lifted the title of Henry Adams' still timely Washington novel. Adams was at least knowledgeable about social and political relations in the capital during Grant's Administration, and about the particular temptations a susceptible senator might fall prey to. The insinuation of ubiquitous corruption saturates Didion's Democracy—like a bottled salad dressing—yet the book is not about the substance of politics, or even its strategies, at all. (pp. 6-7)
Actually, there is no story—only spatters of disillusion and distaste. Didion starts hinting early on that a murder will take place, and in time, Paul Christian, father of Inez, goes haywire and shoots his daughter Janet and her lover, a congressman from Hawaii. But don't inquire too deeply into motives—it's just the same nasty concentration of unhealthy feelings that Didion understands so well.
A curious mix of detachment and bathos, Democracy reads as if some loner had clipped out all the newspaper stories and fan magazine gossip about a film star, and then imagined the star to be a close friend. There's a tremendous focus on photos, interviews and clothing, with the author simultaneously disdaining voyeurism and lapping it up. (p. 7)
If it takes a while to unravel Didion's purpose, we finally realize that Democracy is about her constructing a plot around newsworthy subjects. Perhaps that is why her main characters are represented in space-saving code words and significant phrases…. But when it comes to herself—she constantly pops up in the narrative—Didion pulls a real switch, resorting to full-length sentences, and earnestly briefing us on her state of mind, her favorite authors, her progress on her novel…. (pp. 7-8)
She goes on to furnish a fond recollection of a course she gave at Berkeley "on the work of certain post-industrial writers." Orwell, Hemingway, Adams, Mailer—Didion is always putting herself into imaginary association with the greats…. For all her promptings, the only literary ancestry I can actually discern is a rather unseemly mating of Gertrude Stein and Raymond Chandler.
By her own standard of language as the mark of political integrity, character and accomplishment, Didion must surely at this point be extremely worried about herself. What are we to make of a formulation like this: "Harry Victor's phantom constituency was based on comfort and its concomitant uneasiness"? Or, "no unequivocal lone figure on the crest of the immutable hill"?…
Didion's main writing success has been in pieces of first-person reportage. An irrepressible narcissist, she loves the first person; she also likes facts. Give her the weather, the numbers displayed on aircraft, snatches of conversation … and she gets them just right. In life, lack of pretense appeals to her. But give her a novel to write and she turns coy, smug, fashionable, imitative, distraught—a chameleon, and a great pretender. (p. 8)
Isa Kapp, "Unearned Pessimism," in The New Leader, Vol. LXVII, No. 9, May 14, 1984, pp. 6-8.
I do not have the attention span to sustain a lengthy depression, but I have of late been reading two novelists who do: Renata Adler and Joan Didion. I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining…. Miss Adler and Miss Didion are slender women who write slender books heavy with gloom. (p. 62)
Democracy, Joan Didion's most recent novel, is, as its narrator, a woman calling herself Joan Didion, calls it, a "novel of fitful glimpses." It is Miss Didion's richest novel since Run River. By richest I mean that there are riches on every page: lovely details, sharp observations, risky but always interesting generalizations, real information—many of the things that I, for one, read novels in the hope of discovering. "Let the man build you a real drink," one character says to another, and with that single sentence, a sentence of a kind for which Miss Didion has a splendid knack, she calls up a whole way of life, in this instance that of the business-class country-club stage of culture.
Miss Didion can build you a real character, too, and Democracy, slender though it is as a novel, is filled with interesting characters, major and minor. (p. 66)
Democracy is doing two things at once. It is telling the love story of Inez Victor and Jack Lovett, and it is providing an account of the fraudulence of public life, in its political and celebrity realms, and both are subtly done. Its criticism of left-wing politics, in the person of Harry Victor, is devastating….
But it won't do to slip Miss Didion into a political box. She doesn't much like what has happened in America. Yet she doesn't much like it anywhere else either. Set for the most part during the Vietnam years, her novel, perhaps intended to bring Henry Adams's novel Democracy (1880) up to date, dwells on the decline of American power and the decay of American life. But then Miss Didion is, by temperament, drawn to decline and decay.
Good as Democracy is, one cannot help feeling it would have been better if Miss Didion had left out the character called Joan Didion, the novelist. Throughout the novel, this Joan Didion drops in to tell you about the difficulties and limitations of narrative…. There is a sense in which, because of the fragmented way she tells her story, Miss Didion must have felt called upon to bring her own novelistic problems into the book. Yet one also feels that she is pleased by the modernist note that this device demonstrates.
Why make narrative seem so difficult? The trick used to be to make telling a story as straight and smooth as one could. Now it seems to be to make it as tortuous and jagged as possible. I think Miss Didion would have done better, to borrow a phrase, to have played her story as it lay, and not to have undermined it with accounts of the unreliability of narrative.
With its deconstructionists in literary criticism, its ordinary-language and other philosophers, and its novelists, our age may one day come to be known in intellectual history for its role in the advancement of techniques to prove that reality doesn't exist. Along with their natural gifts of dark temperament, our Sunshine Girls, Renata Adler and Joan Didion, are joined in this enterprise. It is more than a mite depressing. (p. 67)
Joseph Epstein, "The Sunshine Girls," in Commentary, Vol. 77, No. 6, June, 1984, pp. 62-7.∗