Didion’s Democracy, Brideshead Revisited

June 13, 2013

In elementary school, if you read enough books in the summer, you got a painter’s cap (for…for some reason). I’m earning that b this year.

In hindsight, it’s kind of weird to give children painter’s caps for reading. I mean, why not a can of Minwax polyurethane or something useful?

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Somebody the other day mentioned to me that this is the only Waugh book people read — vs., like, Scoop or Decline and Fall — because it’s the Important Book, so the prevailing opinion about what Waugh did is off. That’s kind of the deal, I think, with Edith Wharton where everybody has to read Ethan Frome out in the bleak snowy woods of 1787 or whatever, when most of what she actually wrote was set in the contemporary and has a pretty modern flow to it, and some of it isn’t as depressing.

Anyway, I sort of drive-by said on Twitter that this is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. That caused some consternation, insofar as people actually care about something this boring. But it really is an odd book.

It all works incredibly well, but the micro tone and macro pacing are really all over the place. You shoot from: Dull WWII memoir to Oxford/1920s gay culture experience then a sojourn into alcoholism, onto a more traditional love affair plot, then jump ahead into an entire theological argument with a looming King Lear situation sort of sweeping in from left field.

Just like with Scoop where Waugh keeps it light throughout, though, there is an even keel sense of the foreboding in Brideshead that just hangs over all the proceedings. But there’s a glamor to all of it, too, where Waugh also pulls off making Sebastian and Julia Flyte, who each command basically a half of the narrator’s memoir, alluring enough to justify all this continuing.

If you’re big on this, Waugh also pops off a lot of stuff like this:

“I never see you now,” she said. “I never seem to see anyone I like. I don’t know why.”

But she spoke as though it were a matter of weeks rather than of years; as though, too, before our parting we had been firm friends. It was dead contrary to the common experience of such encounters, when time is found to have built its own defensive lines, camouflaged vulnerable points, and laid a field of mines across all but a few well-trodden paths, so that, more often than not, we can only signal to one another from either side of the tangle wire. Here she and I, who were never friends before, met on terms of long and unbroken intimacy.

Democracy by Joan Didion

This is also a weird book, but it is awesome, and you can bang it out pretty quickly. If you’re looking to read a politics novel poolside (dubious), Democracy is sexy but substantive enough to feel like a good use of your time.

The weird part here is that you have to get on Joan Didion’s level initially. She, Joan Didion, is also a character in the novel (a reporter, narrating) and you have to adjust to that at first. Basically, you have to make it through the first 20 pages then you’re golden.

The plot generally concerns the devolution of a political couple (Didion shreds the Bobby Kennedy-type liberal archetype), but it’s definitely not like some chardonnay candle book. It’s cutting, like Didion is, about Vietnam, the political apparatus, and wealthy people on the east coast, and it’s largely set in Hawaii and Hong Kong. It’s also funny.

On a technical level, Didion really is the best at establishing who somebody is in the fewest words possible. It’s basically, detail, detail, BOOM. And there’s always a setup, so when the characters actually interact, the right detail comes back into focus. It’s like the clinical, industrial, mid-century modern approach to Henry James illuminating with the candle. James is tedious; this isn’t.

Really good read. Highly recommended.

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