Negotiating Didion

Kind of chaos

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Joan Didion is not known for her fiction.

People talk about her personal essays — sweeping, political meditations on the California landscape dotted with pioneer cemeteries and acid-dropping hippies. People talk about her serious journalism – long-form pieces on sexual violence in New York City or nailbed profiles in Nancy Reagan’s rose garden. 

They rarely talk about her dream of becoming a novelist, an aspiration she nursed as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. They rarely talk about her complicated heroines, her towering, “I am the lord, your narrator” voice or her on-again-off-again relationship with plot.

I feel the weight of this omission because my favorite book happens to be one of Didion’s novels. “Democracy” is an unstructured romance between a congressman’s wife and an intelligence agent/war profiteer set against the end of the Vietnam War. I describe the romance as “unstructured” because the novel’s pacing comes apart at the seams. The love story is introduced through a description of weapon te st sites in the North Pacific Ocean. Didion treats chronology as a whim better not indulged. She outruns the pace of her own novel, breaks the third person voice to offer commentary in the first, spoils her own climaxes and accomplishes an overall tone reminiscent of Salvador Dalí’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.”

As a narrative in the traditional sense — a graphable story with an inciting incident, rising action and a climax — “Democracy” reads like unbridled chaos. As a love story, it reads like an interrogator reviewing transcripts in the kitchens of an embassy ball.

But perhaps I am bringing too much of myself to the table. There are no embassy balls in “Democracy,” nor are there love affairs with interrogators. They are embellishments belonging to my own fantasy of becoming an ambassador’s husband, an aspiration I have nursed throughout my time as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.

I’m not entirely sure when it all started. As a young boy, I thought I would make a good politician’s wife. I was diplomatic. I had an eye for flower arrangements. I could pull off a gray Dior suit. I looked at Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford and Patricia Nixon and I thought, “I could be that.”

But then I reflected on what sort of American politician I wanted to marry. The Kennedy boys? Absolutely not. Gerald Ford? The risk of male pattern baldness would be too severe. Nixon had a certain charm, I suppose, but it would be difficult to plan outfits around an impeachment trial.

And so I landed on an ambassador’s husband. I liked the way “husband” and “ambassador” sounded together. 

“Occupation?” someone might ask me.

“Oh, my husband’s a diplomat. I just put together dinner parties and seating arrangements and hope a trade war doesn’t start by dessert,” I’d reply.

The State Department would consider me an asset. My husband would let me sleep on his shoulder on flights across the South China Sea. Our children would go to a lycée Français and play spy rings with the other diplomats’ children.   

But now I’m sensationalizing. Perhaps you’ve begun to notice a structural problem of my own — that all my dreams sound like cheap spy novels and seem to require a husband embedded in a political landscape to legitimize them. I realize that these fantasies do not constitute real life — they taste like an elevator pitch.

And yet I see echoes of it in “Democracy.” The congressman’s wife — the woman the CIA agent could never let go of. The novel has all the bureaucratic trappings of a spy thriller and all the political and rhetorical intrigue of a subpoena.

“Democracy” is my favorite book because of the enduring romance, yes, but also because of the dawn flights to Hong Kong, the attention to family jewelry and the micro yet macro narrative approach of detonating a family drama while the larger political romance of winning the Vietnam War explodes in its own jet fuel.

You can see why Joan Didion is so well known for her nonfiction. She takes a political event and transforms it, dresses it up, takes it out to lunch and then deconstructs it. She dismantles it, finds the metaphors and leaves it shivering on a soup plate. This is not, generally speaking, the reason people turn to fiction. They do not want difficult configurations of political realities. They want a story they can graph.       

And yet Didion’s chaotic approach to novel-writing is exactly why I like “Democracy.” I like the journalistic details, the deconstructed plot, the need to separate the different storylines and timeframes like the wires of an explosive device. The structural chaos works for me. I can imagine myself listening to my husband snore in the master bedroom of the ambassador’s residence while rereading “Democracy” and thinking that Didion’s fiction is the most accurate of all.

Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].