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 a child of privilege. She was born in 1935, in Hawaii, to a mainland girl from Stockton who, while modeling at Magnin’s in San Francisco, was swept off her feet and over the seas by Paul Christian, the foot-loose and increasingly odd son of one of those rich old families whose economic conquest of the Islands was an early, if relatively benign, instance of Yankee colonialism. As Didion pieces together Inez’s story, we learn that she went to Sarah Lawrence, married (two months’ pregnant) an ambitious young lawyer named Harry Victor, had twins, worked in New York with Joan Didion, and then settled, uncomfortably, into the quasi-public role of political wife.
Harry Victor, who has a keen eye for the main chance, became an activist lawyer in the 1960s, got elected to Congress and then the Senate, came close to winning a presidential nomination in 1972, and now devotes himself to something called the Alliance for Democratic Institutions. He is an odious man, full of a liberal self-importance that views the world and himself in it as “incorporeal extensions of policy,” over-responsive to the young women who swarm around him and his causes (one of them, a pop singer, is winningly modest about her talents—“I just do two lines of coke and scream”), deeply attracted to his own untested slogans and the joys of radical chic. He is, in fact, almost a cartoon, but Didion allows him just enough semblance of humanity to suggest, in case we hadn’t noticed, how really cartoon-like are the politics manufactured by television and the press.
Harry is less successful as paterfamilias than as public image. His son, the marvelously named Adlai, is a pompous lunkhead who barely gets into an obscure college near Boston but likes to talk grandly about what’s what in “Cambridge.” Adlai’s twin, Jessie, equally dumb but somewhat sweeter, becomes a heroin addict in prep school, not out of rebellion against her parents or society but simply as a “consumer decision.” Sent off to Seattle for methadone and work-therapy, she, perhaps too neatly, makes her way to Saigon just as the last Americans are being evacuated, because someone told her you could find interesting jobs there.
Inez herself deals with her marriage by becoming more and more numb to what happens to her. She comes to consider “most occasions as photo opportunities”; she works dutifully for good causes and is rumored to have a drinking problem; she reflects that she has been “most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch.” Asked by an AP reporter what the greatest cost of public life is, she answers “memory, mainly,” and when urged to explain, she simply says, “you lose track.” This seems an acute comment on the plight of politicians and others in public life—having to say and do so much just to hold your audience, you cease to care about, and then even to remember, what really happened. That may be why presidential advisers and others close to power seem so genuinely surprised that discrepancies in the record bother other people.
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:
I would skim the stories on policy and fix instead on details: the cost of a visa to leave Cambodia in the weeks before Phnom Penh closed was five hundred dollars American. The colors of th helicopters on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon were red, white, and blue. The code names for the American evacuations of Cambodia and Vietnam respectively were EAGLE PULL and FREQUENT WIND. e amount of cash burned in the courtyard of the DAO in Saigon before the last helicopter left was three-and-a-half million dollars American and eighty-five million piastres. The code name for this operation was MONEY BURN. The number of Vietnamese soldiers who managed to get aboard the last American 727 to leave Da Nang was three hundred and thirty. The number of Vietnamese soldiers to drop from the wheel wells of the 727 was one. The 727 was operated by World Airways. The name of the pilot was Ken Healy.
The voice heard here is Joan Didion’s, not Inez Victor’s, but the malady it reflects is also Inez’s and of course our own. 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.
It is the reading of this particular news story, on March 26, 1975, that leads Joan Didion to another story, a report of what becomes the crucial event of Inez’s life. This is the murder in Honolulu, by Inez’s now-insane father, of her sister Janet and Wendell Omura, a local anti-war congressman who may have been Janet’s lover. This violent mixing of domestic self-destruction and racial chauvinism leads Inez toward something like moral freedom; and it gives the novel some justification of its intricate method in what seems to me its most daring and impressive stroke of political imagination.
The temporal circlings of Didion’s narrative began, if just barely, with the conversation between Inez and Jack Lovett about the H-bomb tests in the Pacific in the early 1950s. That conversation, we later learn, took place in 1975, after the murders. Jack Lovett, a considerably older man, met Inez in Honolulu in 1952, before she left for college; they then had a brief affair which both remember fondly but do not continue when they occasionally meet in later years. Lovett is the antitype of Harry Victor, not a theorist and rhetorician but a sometime army officer and nominal diplomat who works in the demimonde where the CIA, private corporations, and plain criminals consort together for obscure purposes of profit and national policy. He has “access to airplanes”; when Joan Didion meets him in New York in 1960, he is “running a little coup somewhere”; wherever he goes (and he goes everywhere) he strikes up conversations and asks questions, treating “information as an end in itself.”
According to one version—a cartoon version, no doubt—of the world of power, Jack Lovett ought to be a bad man. He is certainly a tough man, whose arms deals and insurrections Joan Didion rather gently sees as expressing an interesting and almost admirable “emotional solitude, a detachment that extended to questions of national or political loyalty.” Compared to the ungrounded ideological sparking of loose wires like Harry Victor, Lovett’s illusionless concern for how to do things, what combinations of people and materials will have the needed result, is in a way refreshing. Though Lovett isn’t made immune to the obvious objections, Didion breathtakingly elects him to be the one who cares and remembers, the one in whom information becomes knowledge, understanding, and even love.
Lovett remembers those bomb tests, not as horrifying displays of technique but as occasions of beauty:
He said: the sky was this pink no painter could approximate, one of the detonation theorists used to try, a pretty fair Sunday painter, he never got it. Just never captured it, never came close. The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias…never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.
His memory of the tests gets entangled with his memories of loving Inez at about the same time, but he does remember her; and when her life goes fully to pieces after the murders in 1975, Lovett is there to help her escape the obligations to her corrupt husband and family that—or so we are to gather from Didion’s cool observation—have been visibly destroying her.
I doubt that Didion means to suggest some comprehensive typology of character in making the otherwise rather sinister Jack Lovett a man of genuine sentiment in a political world where nominal good guys like Harry Victor have trouble feeling anything. She seems to have a weakness for male realists, however—Lovett has in effect a double in Billy Dillon, Victor’s tough and amusingly cynical advisor, who understands Inez’s feelings, takes care of her when her family flounders, and has secretly loved her all along. If there is a point to Lovett’s combination of qualities, it may simply be that public performances don’t reliably fit the contours of the private self inside. Lovett’s self comes to an abrupt end before Democracy is over, but only after he has led Inez to about as much freedom as she can hope to manage. She remains in Asia, quietly looking after Vietnamese refugees, a choice people like Harry Victor would have difficulty understanding.
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. (She in fact quotes from the Education, and Adams’s ambitious, venal, magnetic, and illusionless Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe may vaguely foreshadow both Harry Victor and Jack Lovett.) Both novels deal with the perilous maturing of a political culture which the national rhetoric ceaselessly represents as vigorous and young. Adams put a slightly different formulation of “the American exemption” into the mouth of a European diplomat unable to tolerate that rhetoric any longer:
“You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws. You care not for experience. I have lived seventy-five years, and all that time in the midst of corruption. I am corrupt myself, only I do have the courage to proclaim it…. Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States…. I do much regret that I have not yet one hundred years to live. If I then could come back to this city, I should find myself very much content…ma parole d’honneur!” broke out the old man with fire and gesture, “the United States will then be more corrupt than Rome under Caligula; more corrupt than the Church under Leo X; more corrupt than France under the Regent!”
Now, 104 years later, this seems a fairly chilling forecast, and the America of Joan Didion’s Democracy seems amply to confirm it. Our decline has reached the Pacific—a name of consummate irony—and across it. Inez Victor’s businessmen relatives are still making big money in construction around the Persian Gulf, but back home in the Islands their real-estate developments are going bankrupt, and it is Wendell Omura’s relatives who run things in Honolulu. And of course farther west, past the test-blast atolls, Southeast Asia produces its refugees. Like Henry Adams, we gave up on Washington long ago.
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.
May 10, 1984