BOOKS / Second Thoughts: Tyranny in the tropics: Joan Didion on a novel that began with an angel and ended with Saigon

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When I began thinking about the novel that became Democracy (Vintage, pounds 5.99) I called it Angel Visits. All the early notes were marked AV. An 'angel visit', I had read somewhere, was a 19th-century usage for 'a pleasant interlude of short duration', and this was to be a novel that took place entirely in the rather somnolent life of American Hawaii. It was to be, as the narrator of Democracy eventually notes, 'a study in provincial manners, in the acute tyrannies of class and privilege by which people assert themselves against the tropics; Honolulu during the Second World War, martial law, submariners and fliers and a certain investor from Hong Kong with whom Carol Christian was said to brink brandy and Coca Cola, a local scandal'; in other words a 19th-century novel, with a fixed class structure.

This was actually the novel I set out to write. When it became clear that this was not the direction the novel was taking, that I was stuck willy nilly with the kind of fluid society that famously fails to lend itself to the novel of manners, I called it Pacific Distances for a while. On the day I stopped writing it my husband read it, and suggested calling it Democracy, which seemed right.

I notice that I said 'the day I stopped writing it', not the day I 'finished' it. In fact this novel never seemed to 'finish' in the sense other novels have. I came to love it but I never had a good time with it, never felt it take off and take me with it. Quite often I would resort to starting over, page one, trying to locate another layer, a new thread to pull.

Sometimes the thing ('the thing' was how I came to think of it, a stubborn presence in my household) would just run out, stall and I would flee, go do something else. At one point I did Salvador in lieu of confronting this recalcitrant novel even one more day. Each time I left it I returned with dread.

Still, I liked Inez Victor. I liked her daughter Jessie, I liked Inez's sister Janet, I liked their uncle Dwight Christian. I liked Jack Lovett, I liked Billy Dillon, I liked everybody. I even liked Harry Victor. I especially liked doing the fall of Saigon, and drew up hour-by- hour chronologies of the final weeks, with charts and maps and time lines. In the end not every reader noticed the fall of Saigon, since I did it offstage, but I knew it was there, and that was how I came to think of Democracy, as my novel about the fall of Saigon. It occurs to me that a novel about the fall of Saigon may have been a study in provincial manners after all.