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Friday, November 1, 2013

Joan Didion's "Democracy"

Over the past few years, I have become a huge fan of Joan Didion.  It started with her last two books--The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights--two powerful memoirs that I think are, in some ways, unique artifacts of her generation of new journalists and, at the same time, examples of the best American writing of any decade.   I then went back and read her earlier "new journalism" work, which I found to have much greater staying power than most of the work of her peers like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson.

Now, I have just finished one of her best novels, Democracy.  Published in 1984, it is set in 1975, in the days and weeks immediately surrounding the American withdrawal from Vietnam.  It is a remarkable piece of fiction, focusing on one woman, Inez Christian Victor, and her small circle of family, in the context of the political and social upheaval of the times.  The book would be memorable for the narrative style alone--Didion first-person narrates it as a journalist writing a novel, which gives her incredible ability to break the rules and focus us on the important issues.  But the story itself and the historical context are powerful in their own right.  Inez Victor and Jack Lovett are memorable characters, as is Billy Dillon, the political pro who constantly chimes in to re-contextualize what is happening.

Beyond that, Democracy speaks to the dynamics of American public and private life in a time of dramatic changes.  There are lessons in it for today.

The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights introduced many readers to her late in her career.  I hope, like me, they go on to discover her for what she is:  a great American writer and social commentator.