DEMOCRACY by Joan Didion


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"Fitful glimpses" from the 1960s/'70s life of glamorous Inez Christian Victor--wife of Senator Harry Victor (a onetime Presidential aspirant), daughter of Honolulu colonial aristocracy, and supposed acquaintance of writer Joan Didion, who sprinkles this short, glossily disjointed novel with precious authorial warnings, asides, and false starts. ("I am resisting narrative here.") In a heavy, gimmicky style more suited to New Journalism than fiction, narrator Didion ("Call me the author") assembles vi. gnettes from--and mini-essays about--Inez's existence in the public eye: the "major cost" of such a life, we're repeatedly told, is "memory." Thus, Inez has "come to view most occasions as photo opportunities." She endures the pressures of political wifedom (including Harry's infidelities) with "passive detachment." Her teenage children are disasters, of course--piggy son Adlai and drug-addict daughter Jessie. And the only real emotional connections for Inez seem to be her encounters through the decades with steely Jack Lovett, an older man who's some sort of spy/diplomat/entrepreneur. ("They were equally evanescent, in some way emotionally invisible; unattached, wary to the point of opacity, and finally elusive. They seemed not to belong anywhere at all, except, oddly, together.") Then, as insistently foreshadowed throughout, 1975 melodrama triggers a change in this passive life: Inez's insane father kills her sister and an Hawaiian congressman; meanwhile, daughter Jessie disappears--determined to be a waitress in collapsing South Vietnam. So Inez, shaken, leaves insensitive Harry and his venal political-machine at last, running off to Kuala Lumpur with Jack--who manages to find Jessie in the midst of the Saigon evacuation. And finally, after Jack dies, Inez acquires a global social conscience (she "ceased to claim the American exemption"), devoting her life to working at Southeast Asian refugee camps. A dissection of false-fronted political lifestyles? An indictment of American ethnocentricity? Well, Didion hammers away at both those themes--producing a few very shrewd nasty/funny lines of dialogue but little more. Meanwhile, the characters remain lifeless objects of smug, essayistic scrutiny, kept at a far distance by all the narrative tricks (Didion-as-character, roman a clef inklings, etc.). Still, the surfaces here--full of observant detail and aggressive, ironic sophistication-are likely to satisfy much of Didion's readership. And if the book-world's hype machine can make a major novel out of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark, it can certainly do as much for this more accessible, more political, but quite similar arrival: a chic literary objet with a thin soap-opera center.
Pub Date: April 25th, 1984
ISBN: 0679754857
Page count: 246pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1984


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