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.
But what we have here is clearly a “chapter”—it began with a “1,” and after some blank space and the turn of a page we find a new block of text headed “2.” 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. Inez Christian, we learn, is …