The freedom to juggle with language, Angela Carter suggests, is a promise and perhaps an instrument of other freedoms. Certainly her own cheerful jokes bespeak a lively independence of hallowed prejudices. 'It's very tiring, not being alienated from your environment.' 'It won't be much fun after the Revolution, people say. (Yes, but it's not all that much fun, now.)' St Petersburg, in her new novel, is 'a city built of hubris, imagination and desire', and that, Carter says, is what cities, and lives, should be: crazy possibilities, even impossibilities, juggled into practice. But what if the first freedom is illusory, if all we have to juggle with is cliché, the language of others, a shabby idiom we can't refresh and can't abandon? What if the 'shop-soiled ... romance' Carter finds so much energy in seems to us merely worn down, beaten thin, at best only the shadow of an old puzzle? This is the dilemma that confronts narrator and characters in Joan Didion's Democracy, a novel whose title itself mimes the slippery problem. Democracy, in Didion's work, is not a form of government but an item of rhetoric: what the world is to be made safe for; a conspiracy of empire rigged out as a heart-warming liberal dream. An organisation called the Alliance for Democratic Institutions is simply a means by which a once hopeful Presidential candidate in the novel seeks to keep his political flag flying.
LRB 4 October 1984 | PDF Download