Thursday, April 8, 2010

Democracy by Joan Didion

Reviewed by Chioma

Published: 1984.

It's about: It is extremely difficult to explain what this novel is about and even more difficult to explain it in a paragraph. I am afraid I can't do it justice. You'll understand why if (WHEN) you read it. But I'll attempt the impossible: this post-modern novel, told via meta-fiction, is the story of Inez Christian Victor, a politician's wife. It encompasses the press, her friends and her relatives. The book delves into the details of their lives, relationships, personalities, and memories. The artifacts of their lives are presented: photographs, paperweights, maps, postcards, and police reports. The structure and writing of the novel is what makes it so amazing, but it's also what makes it difficult to describe. Didion serves as a character in the book as well as the reluctant author who resists the constraints of a traditional novel and challenges readers' expectations. A casual reading of the book is impossible as readers are invited to "consider this" and "notice that". The time line is non-linear. Didion jumps between key moments that question how life, America, and people are defined. The book offers glimpses of events and instances in a way that reminds me of another one of my favorite books, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The events of the novel take place in the 50s and through the 60s and 70s, but always comes back to 1975. This gripping work of fiction is original, ironic, funny, and moving. There are multiple levels to the novel and a fascinating subtle comparison between the characters of the novel and democracy.

I thought: I loved this intelligent piece of literature. My copy of the book is enthusiastically annotated and I have many passages stared, highlighted, and underlined. Didion's writing is beautiful and at times, breathtaking. Her style is such that I was not emotionally manipulated (ahem, Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks), but I was still able to feel and believe every bit of the novel. My favorite aspect was how real the characters felt. At one point, I actually googled the characters to see if they were based on real people! I enjoyed being able to deeply think about the this novel and it was so amazing that I wanted to re-reader it immediately after I finished it. It is a book that stays with you after you've finished it. In short, it's a call to conscience.

Verdict: STICK IT ON THE SHELF! This book now has a special place on my bookshelf next to my other favorite books!

Reading Recommendations: I would read it with a pen in hand to star and underline your favorite parts. It also helps to have a pen because there are many characters to keep track of so some notes would help you. There's so much to think about in the novel that it would be lonely to read it alone. Make it your next book club selection or read it with a friend or a spouse! You'll want to talk about it!

Warnings: The s-word is used frequently. I think I also remember the b word occasionally. But I didn't really notice the language. Other than a few allusions to sexual relationships, the book is pretty clean.

Favorite excerpts: (it was so difficult to choose just a few! If you read the book the pages about Carol Christian are my favorites in any book ever.)

"Quite frankly I don't like crazy people. They don't interest me."

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.

I recall asking Dwight Christian how (meaning why) he happened to keep the pool so hot. "No trick to heat a pool," Dwight Christian said, as if I had congratulated him. In fact Dwight Christian tended to interpret anything said to him by a woman as congratulation.

"Happiness” and “unhappiness” did not even seem to be cards in the hand she normally played, and there on the deck in the thin morning sunlight she resolved to reconstruct the details of occasions on which she recalled being happy. As she considered such occasions she was struck by their insignificance, their absence of application to the main events of her life. In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch.