Places: Democracy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1984

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Political

Time of work: Mid-1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Honolulu

*Honolulu. DemocracyHawaii’s capital city, in which Inez Christian was born and grew up during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her college experience on the U.S. mainland led to her marriage to Harry Victor. Despite his political career as a senator from California, and years of residence in Washington, D.C., and New York City, both family ties and fate keep pulling her back to Hawaii. In part this pattern may symbolize the tensions in American life in this era, when formerly East Coast-oriented political “actors” kept being drawn into obligations and conflicts in the Pacific arena.

Even into the 1970’s, life in Honolulu for Inez and her relatives retains many of the perks and institutions of its colonial past. Daiquiri poolside lunches and visiting ballet companies, investments in container corporations and Sea Meadow housing developments all play a part in the family’s illusion of a protected life. However, the occasional presence of Jack Lovett, a mysterious agent with covert, unspecified business all across the Pacific region, shows a different face of the island state. This is underscored by the scene at Schofield Barracks in which Jack and Inez watch television coverage of the simultaneous evacuation of several Southeast Asian capitals. Airfields are jammed with trans-Pacific commerce and rescue missions, and a faint sense of decay as well as luxury reminds the reader that Honolulu is a tropical city not entirely unlike the others that loomed so large in the decade’s disastrous events. When Inez’s father, Paul Christian, shoots her sister Janet Zeigler and a congressman on the rim of the Zeigler’s indoor koi-fish pool, the intrusion of reality is complete.

The book is sparing of descriptive detail. Hawaiian scenic vistas play little part, either in the narrative or in Inez’s memories. Strangely enough, the few scenes she remembers as places and times where she might have been happy took place elsewhere–a hotel room in Chicago with snow piling up outside; a lunch en famille on a rainy day in Paris. These spotty recollections echo her belief that the price public life exacts is a loss of memory, but the memories also reflect settings where she is out of cameramen’s and reporters’ range. Because of her family’s and her husband’s prominence, she seldom attained this happy situation in Honolulu.

*Kuala Lumpur

*Kuala Lumpur. Capital city of Malaysia, situated on the eastern coast of the Malaysian peninsula, which served as a way station and refuge for people fleeing persecution in Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries. In the novel, Inez visits a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur when her husband’s travels take them to Malaysia. As a “special interest” it is considered too controversial by his political advisors, but when she leaves Honolulu with Jack Lovett on the eve of her sister’s funeral, she ends up working in the camp on a semi-permanent basis. Inez thus finally puts her husband’s liberal principles into practice, while he is still flailing around, changing positions every time a poll result shifts.


*Saigon. Capital of South Vietnam before the reunification of Vietnam. Of all the places mentioned in Democracy, Saigon is the only one Inez never visits, but it serves as a storm center and catalyst for many events in her life. Jack Lovett goes to Saigon sporadically on unspecified missions. When Inez’s daughter Jessie refuses to attend her Aunt Janet’s funeral, she flies to Saigon instead, seeking a waitress job or perhaps a reliable drug connection. This is during the final days of the American pullout from the city. Inez, frightened for Jessie, asks Jack to go to Saigon, as he is the only person who knows his way around the embattled capital. Miraculously, he goes and forcibly puts the young woman on a U.S.-bound flight just as American troops are abandoning their mission in Vietnam.

BibliographyThe Atlantic. CCLIII, May, 1984, p. 122.Chicago Tribune. May 16, 1984, p. 19.Ching, Stuart. “ ‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion’s Democracy.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Ching’s chapter discusses Didion’s portrayal of the Vietnam War in Democracy.Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, May 16, 1984, p. 19.Felton, Sharon. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. This text presents a sampling of the critical response to each of Didion’s books. One of these criticizes Didion for “borrowing” from her former novels.Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. Although none of the pieces concerns Democracy directly, the collection is nevertheless useful for Didion’s essay “Why I Write,” three previously published interviews, and Victor Strandberg’s analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influence on Didion. (“Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer”).Garis, Leslie. “Didion and Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage.” The New York Times Magazine, February 8, 1987, 18-24, 26, 52, 55, 58, 65. An excellent profile of Didion and her writer-husband John Gregory Dunne, focusing on their literary marriage, collaborative efforts as screenwriters, mutual support, and different backgrounds.Henderson, Katherine Usher. “The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson, (also the author of Joan Didion (1981), appends comprehensive bibliographies of works by and about Didion to her useful essay.Henderson, Katherine Usher. “Joan Didion: The Bond Between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Henderson explores the effects that Didion’s first-person narrator, named Didion, has on the story, particularly in terms of her relationship with Inez Victor.Kirkus Reviews. LII, February 1, 1984, p. 97.Library Journal. CIX, April 15, 1984, p. 821.Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 15, 1984, p. 1.Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 32.The New York Review of Books. XXXI, May 10, 1984, p. 23.The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 22, 1984, p. 1.Newsweek. CIII, April 16, 1984, p. 86.Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 17, 1984, p. 72.Stout, Janis P. Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990. Stout points out that while Didion’s use of white space and short “stand-alone” sentences may at first appear to be a gimmick, it lends the novel’s events an appropriate urgency.Tager, Michael. “The Political Vision of Joan Didion’s Democracy.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 31, no. 3 (1990): 173-184. Tager discusses the irony in Didion’s title, Democracy, and points out similarities between the events in the novel and the thinking behind the Iran-Contra scandal. Tager pays particular attention to the characters Harry Victor and Jack Lovett.Time. CXXIII, May 7, 1984, p. 114.The Washington Monthly. XVI, June, 1984, p. 58.Washington Post Book World. April 15, 1984, p. 3.
Categories: Places