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Saturday, 1 March 2008

The photo of Joan Didion was taken by Quintana Roo Dunne, the author's (deceased) daughter, and is unmistakably of Hawaii. Several elements of the narrative of the novel Democracy take place on the island.

In a similar way as we find in the preceding two Didion novels, characters in Democracy move through a privileged space together. It is within this space that we learn facts. But as usual in her work, it is almost impossible to track events. This is because she uses deft clips of conversation to tell most of the story. These are accompanied by recounts so dense we cannot see which stem leads to which flower.

The three novels of Didion's maturity are:

  • Play It As It Lays (1970)
  • A Book of Common Prayer (1977)
  • Democracy (1984)

In my mind the second of these is the moment of greatest effect. Democracy, written 'about' a set of people Didion is well acquainted with, is more opaque, less defined. It is gossamer not velvet.

But this doesn't mean it's a failure. Indeed, it could be said that the accomplishment of an author might be his or her ability to demonstrate total control over the book's forward motion. By 'control' I mean whether it is manifest, despite the amount of information given to the reader, that the author knows what will happen in the future.

In Didion's novels, however, we are also always trying to see into the past. In other words, we are peering in two directions at once (or, possibly, at different moments we peer right or we peer left). The meaning of the future is discernible within the afterimages of past actions.

I think it is significant, for this reason, that Democracy was published in 1984. If we go to another cultural moment of the same period, we can find a similar anxiety. I think it is safe to assume that Didion mostly acts as a sentient being. In fact, she is probably more knowing than most, more aware of the ramifications of, what others see as, routine political events.

Didion is both a reporter and a novelist. Like Mailer, she is on top of the zeitgeist.

Jon Wozencroft, in his monograph The Graphic Language of Neville Brody (1988), says Brody "felt that there was no typeface at the time that suited the specific mood he sought for The Face. The gemoetric quality of the type was authoritarian, drawing a parallel between the social climate of the 1930s and the 1980s".

The Face, which closed in May 2004, was a leading pop culture vehicle, published out of London, of the eighties. Publisher EMAP, significantly, now sees healthy revenues from its weekly womens title Grazia. In last week's The (sydney) magazine (a monthly Fairfax vehicle), however, I start to see '80s elements, such as those pioneered by Brody, appearing in feature spreads.

In Democracy a few things definitely occur:

  1. Two people, a man and a woman, die in suspicious circumstances
  2. A woman (Inez) marries a wealthy man and has a long-term affair with a man whose occupation is 'shady'
  3. The daughter of one of the lead women is a heroin user who travels to Vietnam during war
  4. One of the men runs for president (of America, naturally)
  5. A high-profile Hawaii businessman is also killed

Apart from these items, there is very little remaining in mind from reading. If the only achievement of the book, however, is to cement there (forever) the image of the daughter working in a Saigon cafe, then Didion has succeeded admirably.

Similarly, my only remaining memory of Play It As It Lays is of a woman, possibly on the brink of a nervous breakdown, driving at high speed on California freeways. A single image, well planted, may bring forth strong fruit.

I think that the daughter is the 'real' main character. The nature of other characters has meaning only in terms defined by our understanding of her.

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