Jane Hill's first psychological thriller, Grievous Angel, has just appeared in paperback. Her second, The Murder Ballad, was published earlier this month by William Heinemann. Jane is also a stand-up comedian and freelance broadcaster. In this post she discusses Joan Didion's Democracy.
Jane Hill on Democracy by Joan Didion
I have read Joan Didion's 1984 novel Democracy more times than I can remember. I bought it when it was first published in paperback - January 1986, according to my handwriting inside the cover. I bought it because I had discovered Didion's essays the year before, while studying at university in America, and had been utterly seduced by her prose style. This novel made me fall even deeper under her spell.
It's a very short book but - as with all Didion's writing - it's taut and tightly sprung. The narrative darts backwards and forwards in time, relying on short scenes, impressions and bits of dialogue. It accumulates layers and meanings as it goes on. The book is clever, ice-cool, beautiful and very funny.
A woman is murdered by her father in Hawaii and a teenage drug addict goes missing in Vietnam as Saigon falls. And yet these are mere incidentals in a novel that is mostly about a love affair between two people who are each, in different ways, disconnected from normal life as normal people live it.
Inez Christian and Jack Lovett meet in Hawaii on New Year's Day 1952. Inez is seventeen, a member of one of Honolulu's prominent families. Jack is much older, married, in some unspecified government or military position (we later understand that he is CIA). They begin an affair that from the start is marked by what we come to regard as Inez's characteristic detachment:
'I don't care about your wife,' she said. 'So it's up to you. More or less.'The relationship continues in fits and starts as Inez marries politician Harry Victor, later a potential Presidential candidate. She and Jack meet occasionally: at the magazine where Inez works in New York, on a diplomatic mission to Jakarta. As Inez says from the start, 'I suppose we'll run into each other... Here or there.'
The novel reaches its climax in Hawaii in 1975. The main characters assemble as tragedy strikes Inez's family. Jack arrives on the scene and Inez leaves with him. Twenty-three years after their first meeting they are finally together.
And in telling you this I have not spoilt the story. The book begins on that night in 1975. As Saigon is evacuated, Jack and Inez are together in a bar near Honolulu. He is talking to her about - of all things - witnessing the Pacific bomb tests in the early 1950s. It's a beautiful piece of writing: a gruff yet romantic man, finally alone with the woman he's yearned for, talking to her about the strange beauty of an atomic bomb test:
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...These beautiful images of light and water run through the book. Later, Inez finds herself in Kuala Lumpur and is asked to explain why she's staying there. She answers with a postcard: 'Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air.' This becomes a theme in the book - a kind of mantra.
For such a short book, Democracy takes its time getting going. Joan Didion, a familiar voice to many from her journalism and essays (Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album), plays a role in this book - the narrator-as-character. She tells us about the writing process, about how she began writing the book, the ideas and scenes that she discarded. We are never in any doubt that this is an intricately-structured book that constantly bucks conventional narrative. Didion-as-Didion says, 'This is a hard story to tell.'
But once the reader has grasped the style of the book it's a treat - a delight. Didion lightly sketches scenes from her characters' lives: Jack Lovett on a plane flying to some secret meeting or other; Inez giving an interview about her husband's campaign; the business dealings of Inez's family members in Hawaii. The book is often laugh-out-loud funny as well as being heartbreaking in a very cool way.
Joan Didion's prose style is instantly recognizable. It's rhythmic, repetitive and accumulative, and manages to be simultaneously razor-sharp and oblique - imagine the way that you can draw a picture of a circle using a multitude of straight lines, and you might be able to imagine how this book works. Little details that seem unimportant will later become crucial. Every word and scene seems to matter.
The heroine, too, is instantly recognizable from Didion-land. Like the central female figures in Play It As It Lays, A Book Of Common Prayer and The Last Thing He Wanted, Inez Christian is often passive and disconnected - unhappy, dissatisfied, yet unable or unwilling to impose herself in order to get what she wants.
I can imagine that many people would hate this book, with its passive heroine and stylized, self-conscious prose. The first time I read it I didn't 'get' it. But I read it again and somehow it worked its way under my skin. I often take it with me on journeys. It's the kind of book you can dip into at almost any point in the story. It repays repeat readings. I don't think it's even in print at the moment, but if you can get hold of a copy, give it a go. I think it's an extraordinary piece of writing.