Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy was Joan Didion’s fourth novel. I began reading her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a few days ago, but it didn’t grab me, partly because the writing didn’t sound like Joan Didion. The writing in Democracy, published seven years later (in 1984), does.

The central character is Inez Christian Victor. She is from a prominent Hawaii family and married to a prominent mainland politician. The story Didion tells does not go in a straight line. Instead, she jumps around in time and space. The events she describes tend to involve Inez’s relationship through the years with Jack Lovett, a kind of “international man of mystery”. Lovett is apparently connected to the CIA. Events in the novel take place in New York City, Honolulu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and, during the war, in Viet Nam.

Didion suggests at one point that we call her “the author”. This “author” supposedly began writing a different novel. She eventually focused on Inez, possibly because Inez is frequently in the public eye, written about and photographed as if she were Jacqueline Kennedy (except that Inez’s husband lost his race for the presidency). I can’t say we get a very clear understanding of Mrs. Victor. She sort of drifts through the novel, reacting to other people. Jack Lovett, the apparent CIA man, and a few other characters have more personality.

One way to look at Inez is to compare her point of view to Didion’s. I’ve sometimes wondered what point Didion is trying to make, especially in her essays. But recently I came upon an article about her written by Daniel Kaufman, a philosophy professor. He offers an answer:

It’s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didion’s work.  With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point — Hunter S. Thompson’s fierce independence; Kingsley Amis’s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwell’s unaffected, unpretentious humanity – but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused.  Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story.  It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.

That doesn’t describe her prose, but it helps me understand what she’s often doing. As for her prose, Democracy contains passages like this:

We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.

An American in a body bag.

An American who, it was being said, had been doing business in situations where there were not supposed to be any Americans.

What did I think about this.

Finally I shrugged.

Inez watched me a moment longer, then shrugged herself.

“Anyway we were together”, she said. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.”

I wouldn’t read Democracy for the story. There hardly is one. But I enjoyed it anyway.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I’d never seen or read this play and think I’ve only seen parts of the movie. But it’s referred to so often and quoted so often (as in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper) that much of it was familiar.

Streetcar was first performed in 1947 and its age shows. The four principal characters are the fragile Blanche DuBois, her new beau Mitch, and the married couple, Stanley and Stella Kowalski. I sympathized with Blanche, despite her “putting on airs” and preferring fantasy to reality. To some extent, I sympathized with her sister Stella. But she doesn’t mind Stanley punching her occasionally because the sex is great. She also prefers to take her husband’s word over her sister’s because otherwise she’d have to leave him. I hardly sympathized with the male characters at all. Both men are jerks. Actually, Stanley is worse than a jerk. Maybe Stanley and Mitch came across better in 1947.

Something I especially enjoyed were Tennessee Williams’s stage directions. For example:

It is first dark of an evening early in May. The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee.

Perhaps Williams sympathized with the male characters more than they deserved. A gay man, he appears to have found Stanley attractive:

Stanley throws the screen door of the kitchen open and comes in. He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependency, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.

Finally, here’s the scene from Sleeper in which Woody Allen’s character temporarily believes he’s Blanche Dubois. The dialogue is taken from the play.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I suppose this is science fiction, although any science involved is way beyond human understanding. There is a mysterious region somewhere in the U.S. called “Area X”. The people who go inside either never come back or come back as someone else. The latest group of volunteers to try their luck include a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, a linguist and a biologist. The biologist tells their story. As you might expect, the expedition doesn’t go very well. They encounter a lot of weirdness, along with mounting paranoia.

Annihilation is the first novel in the author’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to start reading the second novel, Authority. That one is followed by Acceptance (which could refer to either a positive or negative outcome). I can’t say reading Annihilation was a totally enjoyable experience, because the characters aren’t sympathetic. Area X is clearly affecting their minds. But there was enough suspense to keep me reading. What is going on in Area X? You won’t really find out in Annihilation. Nor will you find out by watching the 2018 “science fiction horror” movie. It’s based on the book, but a lot of it is different.

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

I read The Metamorphosis in high school fifty years ago. I remember not liking it, although I don’t remember why. I have a much higher opinion now. When Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he’s been turned into a giant insect-like creature, or “some kind of monstrous vermin” as this translation says, we don’t know what to expect. Will it be a simple horror story, a tragedy, a comedy? I didn’t expect Gregor to still be preoccupied with his normal affairs, like how his transformation will affect his job and his plan to send his sister to a music conservatory. Nor did I expect his family to immediately assume that the creature in Gregor’s bedroom was Gregor. The Metamorphosis is a horror story, a tragedy and a comedy too.

Another story in the collection is In the Penal Colony. It’s less well-known than The Metamorphosis, but equally disturbing. It concerns the use of a brutal machine designed to torture and kill anyone in the penal colony accused of misbehavior. The machine is horrible. So is the officer who vigorously defends the use of the machine even though he knows all the arguments against it. It is a portrait of a true believer, the kind of person who would continue to support a president who shot and killed someone in the middle of 5th Avenue.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

There is no trial in The Trial. At least, there’s no trial in the sense of a judicial proceeding in which witnesses testify, evidence is presented and a decision is rendered. What there is instead is an ordeal with judicial aspects.

Joseph K. is informed one morning that he’s under arrest. But he isn’t told why or even who is arresting him. He’s allowed to go about his business before being summoned to a gathering in the attic of a tenement building that’s presided over by a supposed  “Examining Magistrate”. Joseph K. makes a speech critical of the proceedings but doesn’t demand to know why he’s been arrested.

That is the last official event related to his arrest that he attends. Months go by filled with lengthy discussions of the Court (whatever that is) and his case (whatever that is). He speaks to various officials, other people who have been similarly “arrested”, a lawyer, a priest, his uncle and a painter who is said to have connections with senior judges. It’s surprising that such a mysterious, nonsensical situation can give rise to such subtle, detailed discussions.

The novel ends with a brief chapter in which something happens but nothing is revealed.

Before reading The Trial, my impression was that it was a story about an unfortunate citizen dealing with a mysterious government bureaucracy. That is true, but I kept thinking that it’s also about the human condition. Life is a trial. We are subject to powerful forces we don’t really understand and we don’t know when or exactly how the proceedings will conclude. We consult experts, some of whom aren’t expert at all, and consider our options. Then our story ends. (The book, like life, is also funny at times.)

The Plague by Albert Camus

I read The Myth of Sisyphus in college and didn’t understand it at all. I read The Stranger a few years ago and didn’t really enjoy it. So it was good to start reading The Plague and find it both understandable and enjoyable (or as enjoyable as the subject matter would allow).

The plague in question is the bubonic plague. It strikes a city in Algeria in modern times, killing thousands of people. For months, nobody is allowed to enter or leave the city. The novel has relatively few descriptions of the physical effects of the disease. There is more said about its psychological effects. We follow the activities of Dr. Rieux, who does whatever he can to help his patients, and a small number of his acquaintances, some of whom become his friends as the months go by.

The Plague is sometimes described as an “existentialist” novel, although Camus apparently disliked that term. It certainly does concern human existence, and human existence under great stress. I haven’t checked to see whether the plague is supposed to symbolize something. What I took away from the novel is that most people will rise to the occasion, as we see whenever a disaster occurs. It also occurred to me that all of us are quarantined on this planet, with no possibility of escape, and that we are all going to succumb to something sooner or later. The difference is that some of the characters in the novel get out alive.

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

Family Lexicon is an autobiographical novel, first published in 1963, by the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. I read an article about it recently and since our local library had a copy, I brought it home. I almost stopped reading it two or three times but kept going.

It’s a strange book. It tells the story of the author’s family in the 1930s and ’40s. The author doesn’t say much about herself. For example, she only mentions in passing that she’s gotten married the two times it happens. Instead, she describes the personalities, activities and especially the conversations of her parents and four siblings. The rise of fascism and the war play a relatively small role (people are arrested by the fascists, or taken away by the Germans, but not much is said about it). Ginzburg concentrates instead on the day to day lives of her family and their friends. The book is often amusing, but you have to put up with a lot of numbing detail (my mother said this, my father said that, we took a walk, the maid got upset, the new apartment was nice).

Her father is a biology professor who tells most everyone around him that they are “jackasses” and “nitwits”. Her mother is an easy-going sort who tries to see the good in everyone and everything. Her sister and three brothers are less interesting and get less attention. It’s the distinctive way the characters, especially her father and mother, talk to each other that’s the most interesting thing about the book.

Family Lexicon has gotten renewed attention because of last year’s new translation. If you’re interested, you can read positive thoughts about it here, here, here, here and here.