So, why did we decide to do this again? Right: We were both talking about the gaps in our reading when it comes to novels about Washington, D.C. Though I’m not the native you are—I moved here in 2007—I’ve tried to catch up as best I can with the city’s literary background. I’m left with mixed feelings. I admire Ward Just, though his fiction mostly sticks to legislators and journalists; Edward P. Jones has written brilliant stories set in the District, so brilliant I keep wishing he’d write a District-set novel to match The Known World; Christopher Buckley can be very funny when he skewers the town, but he does it with a very broad satirical brush. In the same way D.C. has a kind of unstable, not-quite-there status as a non-state, there seems to be a great novel about the District that’s still waiting to be written.
Is Democracy that book? Maybe it’s too old or specific in focus to qualify itself, but it does clear a very high hurdle in making legislative parrying entertaining. Writing about Democracy in 2010, Christopher Hitchens identified one problem with writing about the federal D.C. that trips up a lot of writers (or perhaps prompts them to avoid the subject altogether): “Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” What struck me almost immediately about Adams’ novel is that while it doesn’t exactly make process electrifying, he can often makes it very funny. The tone of the novel seems exactly right for a wonkish culture that functions through scheming and horse-trading but dresses it up in proclamations of egalitarianism and high values. Once you’ve finished it, it’s clear that the first laugh line in the book is the title of the book itself; it ought to be in scare quotes (“Democracy”) to make clear that Adams was mocking anybody who tried to apply the term to America with a straight face.*
Some of the jokes are straight gags that could have come out of Twain. The novel’s heroine, Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, is a widow arriving from New York to understand Washington’s culture in general and its power structure in particular, and we learn early that she “had not entered a church in years; she said it gave her unchristian feelings.”  Pondering Ratcliffe, one of the Senators who vies for her attention and affections, Adams writes that “she wanted to understand this man, to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens.”  Later, when Madeleine and Ratcliffe discuss Charles Darwin, she patiently tolerates the Senator’s puffing about how highly evolved legislators are as a class, before demolishing him with one line: “You are rather hard on the monkeys.” 
The fact that the protagonist of the novel is a woman matters a lot when it comes to the book’s sense of humor, I think. For one thing, seeing the novel from a woman’s perspective automatically makes it an outsider’s narrative, and as such open to being written as a kind of anthropology report from a strange land. (It wasn’t until 1917 that Congress had an elected female legislator—Jeannette Rankin, who just happened to be born the same year Democracy was published.)
But also, Madeleine being a woman—and an unattached one at that—amplifies the preening and egotism that consume so many of the powerful men in the novel. Part of the fun in that is watching how, over time, these men become more candid about Washington’s machinations in her presence—she hardly has to lift a finger to get these frogs dissected. In one early scene, Ratcliffe and some colleagues are gathered in Madeleine’s home, and she asks the question at the heart of the novel: “Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?” It’s a formal parlor-chat question, and Ratcliffe responds in kind, diplomatically suggesting that if you “try to purify the government artifically…you only aggravate failure.” Another guest deems it a “very statesmanlike reply,”  but Adams notes the “shade of mockery” in his voice—it’s clear Ratcliffe isn’t being honest. A little later, at another party, Ratcliffe will be: “If our virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office, and this was as true in Washington’s day as it is now, and always will be,”  he tells a fellow senator. Another guest wants to change the subject—“the conversation verges on treason,” he says. No mocking tones or shades thereof are identified; before the book is half finished Madeleine has cut through the polite gestures and found the cynicism and corrosion at the heart of the place.
There’s more to say about that, especially when it comes to some of the discoveries that Madeleine makes about Ratcliffe and his rival Carrington, and in the romantic subplots involving Madeleine and her sister, Sibyl. But I’ve a typed enough already. Your turn, Jennifer: Did the book make you laugh? Could this story have worked with a male lead?
*Adams, who wrote the book anonymously and wasn’t identified as its author until 35 years after it came out, had reasons to be bitter. Slate ran a fine backgrounder on Adams and the book last year.