Slouching Towards Bethlehem

ISBN: 0374521727
ISBN 13: 9780374521721
By: Joan Didion

Check Price Now


Currently Reading Essays Favorites Fiction History Memoir Non Fiction Nonfiction Short Stories To Read

Reader's Thoughts


When I was feeding my mother's cat over Thanksgiving I liberated this from her shelves, an ancient copy that one of my best friends (who is still one of my best friends) gave me in high school -- it's inscribed "Lovely Lisa Meter Maid, where would I be w/o you?" and has as a bookmark a postcard I wrote to another high school friend but never sent, thick with all sorts of stupid private jokes and code words. Since today is Joan Didion's birthday and since I don't have the attention span for anything more than short essays, I started reading it, and it is not disappointing. There is a bit of a pentimento effect, picturing myself at 16 or 17 reading this for the first time. How did we have such good taste in high school? Older brothers and sisters, maybe? We passed around some awesome books, and they definitely shaped me -- shaped us all, which is why we're still close 30 years later.**This really left its mark on me when I was a teenager, not just her writing but a lot of the content. The essay on Keeping a Notebook, for one thing -- it's like Harriet the Spy grows up. And "On Self-Respect" -- my god, I'd forgotten how much that hit me when I read it, how important it felt to me at the time and, in retrospect, how much it affected who I became as I grew up and who I am now. Why is this not required reading for every 16-year-old in the world? Toward the end you get a little weary of how nervy and pronouncement-prone she paints herself to be, because time has born out that she's a lot stronger and more nuanced than she must have imagined herself in her late 20s, but still. Five stars, just for kicking my ass into gear when I was in 10th grade.


Back in May, in an Essay Mondays post, I kicked myself for waiting so long acquaint myself with the wonders of Joan Didion's writing. After that post I lost no time in acquiring Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a classic collection of her early investigative reporting and personal examinations published in magazines from the early to late 1960s; and having now read it, my admiration for Didion has only increased. The bulk of the collection consists of mood pieces featuring the California and Nevada landscapes of the mid-1960s, along with a few of their famous and infamous inhabitants: a suburban housewife who murders her depressed dentist husband one dark night in 1964; a paranoid Communist bookstore owner obsessed with security; the distressed residents of the Carmel Valley who objected to Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Although I think of Didion as much more contemporary than the classic LA noir authors, her portraits of California's seedy suburban underbelly and the sad glitz of Vegas made me feel I was next door to a Raymond Chandler landscape. She captures the dirty mythos of place, so pronounced in the American West, and combines it with a wry, reserved wit, quiet with a hint of steel underneath, and an extremely keen eye for a memorable line or an odd juxtaposition. I love this passage on Vegas, not only for its evocation of the Rat Pack-era Strip, but for how accurate it remains as an explanation of the bizarre fascination of the American Babylon: Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets. Almost everyone notes that there is no "time" in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future (no Las Vegas casino, however, has taken the obliteration of the ordinary time sense quite so far as Harold' Club in Reno, which for a while issued, at odd intervals in the day and night, mimeographed "bulletins" carrying news from the world outside); neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks "STARDUST" or "CAESAR'S PALACE." Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with "real" life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.One gets the impression that, whenever Didion observes a tableau, she immediately starts to tell a story about it, and that the story has both the weight of accumulated legend and allegory behind it, and a bubble-pricking sharpness of detailed observation. This potent mix is applied to people as well as places (John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Joan Baez) although the people she discusses are always rooted in the place where she encounters them: a dusty, latter-day film shoot outside Mexico City, a locked, hunkering compound in the L.A. suburbs; a ranch in the Carmel Valley. The soul of these essays is in the places where they occur, just as Didion's own soul, as she explores in "Notes from a Native Daughter," is rooted in a vanishing Sacramento. Indeed, writing about the land and its inhabitants is, for Didion, frequently a way of looking at herself, and of examining American culture more generally: how (and why) do we choose our living legends? Why are we obsessed by certain stories? What does it say about us? Toward the end of the book's first section is the long essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": simultaneously a portrait of the hippie scene on Haight-Ashbury in 1967, and a heartfelt cry out against a perceived lack of meaning in the world. Didion writes in the Preface that she was crushed to find, upon publication, that readers perceived only the first mode and not the second: she had written a piece on coming to terms with disorder in the universe, and her readers encountered simple documentary on street drugs and teenage runaways. Personally, I think the essay works on both levels: I am glad to have such an evocative portrait of a now-vanished "scene," and I also recognize the all-too-universal darkness and chaos of the human condition in these stories of children who feed acid to their own babies. I was particularly impressed, in this piece, Didion's understated take on New Journalism: she is definitely a "presence" in this essay, and reading between the lines one can tell that she, the speaker, may be going through a pretty rough time herself, but she never plays up her own role. She acknowledges it, and lets it go. Norris and I are standing around the Panhandle and Norris is telling me how it is all set up for a friend to take me to Big Sur. I say what I really want to do is spend a few days with Norris and his wife and the rest of the people in their house. Norris says it would be a lot easier if I'd take some acid. I say I'm unstable. Norris says all right, anyway, grass, and he squeezes my hand.      One day Norris asks me how old I am. I tell him I am thirty-two. It takes a few minutes, but Norris rises to it. "Don't worry," he says at last. "There's old hippies too."I loved Didion's portraits of the shiny new California and the vanishing California of old, on self-important think tanks, dusty Valley towns, and suburban misfits who bought into the dream, but the real high point of the collection for me was "On Keeping a Notebook," one of the only pieces in this collection without explicit ties to place (although of course it gets worked in there somehow). In it, Didion relates her practice of recording seemingly "useless" tidbits in her notebook—disconnected scraps of overheard conversation, details of a scene that strike her, for whatever reason, as evocative. One might assume, she writes (in fact even she has sometimes assumed), that she does this in order to have a factual record of what she has been doing or thinking, or that she is accumulating bits of dialogue that may come in useful for other writing projects down the road. But when she interrogates herself about the real function of her notebook, she acknowledges that it accomplishes neither of these goals, nor is it intended to; the real reason for Didion's notebook scraps is, in an almost Proustian way, to evoke the visceral past, to remain in touch with the person she once was and feel what that person felt upon hearing, for example, a cashier remark that her ex-boyfriend "left her no choice," or upon seeing a woman in a dirty Crepe-de-chine wrapper in a train station. The shock of recognition is the point: "to remember what it was to be me." Given that object, the literal "truth" of the notebook's contents is irrelevant: [N]ot only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day's pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day's events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me. Similarly, perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.I don't know whether I'm imagining the echoes of James Joyce's The Dead here, but either way that's a stunning paragraph.Reading these essays now, in 2010, I processed some of them as period pieces, others as still-relevant, still others as timeless: all of them, though, were a joy.

Jill Malone

A collection of essays that changed the way I look at writing--tone and syntax particularly. A tough, beautiful book.

Corbin Amman

If only I'd read this in 1967. Then I could say it doesn't hold up very well. Alas, I wasn't born until later. As a pure stylist, she was obviously very influential. All through this book, I kept noticing clumsy versions of tropes that are familiar to me from reading Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker magazines and that pretty much make contemporary literary essays what they are. And I had to remind myself that she should get some credit for doing it 40 years ago. As a thinker, she pretty much has nothing to say. I had to push hard to make myself finish it.

James Smith

I have sort of read Joan Didion backwards, beginning with her masterful memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and now working my way back to Slouching Towards Bethlehem--one of those books that casts a long shadow over contemporary nonfiction. I picked up this book as a companion for a recent trip back to Los Angeles, both because Didion is one of those rare creatures who is a "native" of California, but also because California figures prominently in these essays. But I became so absorbed in the book I didn't sleep on my redeye flight and finished it while taxiing at LAX.As I understand it, Didion was sometimes mistaken for a reactionary conservative because of her unflinching depiction of the Haight-Ashbury district in the summer of '67 (the title essay in this volume). This is clearly to misread her. Indeed, Didion cringes at her own inability to capture the essence of the summer of love in that essay, but she also laments misreading:I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.This is part of the allure of this volume: it is both a collection of stellar nonfiction writing as well as reflexive commentary on the vocation and task of writing. Hence the more confessional, autobiographical moments of the book (on keeping a notebook, on going home, on leaving New York). Even these are packed with suggestive nuance. (For example, in commenting on the faith a young communist in Watts who seems driven by dread, Didion confesses: "I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroine or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.")In these pieces from the 60s, Didion is both a powerful stylist and a crisp observer. Her writing couples bravura and insight as few can. In fact, in this sense she often reminded me of Norman Mailer (imagine Norman Mailer with a vagina!). There are paragraphs in here (especially in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream") that left me almost breathless from their energy--a virtuoso performance that captures both a zeitgest and a geography in 3 pages of fire. But there are crystallized one-liners that nail reality to the wall (of Joan Baez she says, "until she found Carmel, she did not really come from anywhere"). California is a quarry for Didion precisely because California is where Americanism goes to die--though it goes there thinking it will achieve eternal life. Didion often frames this in terms of the "dream": the American dream, the dream of the Gold Rush, the buttoned-down dreamers in the Valley or the turned-on dreamers in the Haight. So the spiral of a disaffected marriage in southern California becomes "the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live"--and kill and die. Or in a remarkable piece on John Wayne, a younger Didion confesses: "when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams." Or she sees Howard Hughes as a projection of our dreams:That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake [...], but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. [...] He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.I suppose the line on Didion as a reactionary or a 'conservative' of sorts stems from a kind of memory or quasi-nostalgia that sometimes comes to the surface in this collection. For example, she recalls the scene of John Wayne's "discovery" by director John Ford: "There, a meeting with John Ford, one of the several directors who were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost." The same sense of loss and errancy gets a kind of imprimatur on her reflections on the history of Sacramento, her home town--a town founded on a curious mixture of hope and history, that things started downhill pretty much just after the "Eureka" moment of discovery:Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried by ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.The lament/memory/nostalgia is most famously expressed in the opening of "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" where Didion observes "children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together." This opening gambit is completed by the end of the essay when she concludes: At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing it ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.[It is a straight line, I think, from this observation to the stinging satire of Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.]So Didion regularly looks back, laments something lost, wonders whether we've taken some wrong turns. For those who think any glance back amounts to some kind of ideology (this assumption itself being ideological), this is enough for Didion to qualify as a reactionary. But is all memory nostalgia? And could our memory sometimes be right? Certainly Didion is no Whig; and only whiggish ideals of progress consider historical laments as false de jure. But some of us just refuse such simplicities. Perhaps Didion is a Burkean we need now more than ever.

Hansen Wendlandt

When the whole world seems to be falling apart, a light tends to shine on those parts of your own life that tremble with the least stability and most ambiguous significance. For Joan Didion, in this collection that rings nearly as relevant today as it did initially in 1968, she shares gracefully from her scarred history, as she describes our world decomposing with moribund beauty—-a pessimistic aesthete. Hope exists, though it is neither revolutionary nor inevitable; any “rough” peace for one’s own soul or society is merely “slouching” along without urgency or sign. The preface ends with this warning: “writers are always selling someone out.” (xiv) Whether she means in this case that she has been a bit too truthful about her many interviewees, or too deprecating about her own self, her writing feels as close and revealing as a great story-teller, while maintaining the tone and distance of a misanthropic critic. Didion is a master at holding the reader’s attention with comedy, both clever and dark, before delivering her most poignant messages, both personal and philosophical. Especially the short stories in the first two sections are absolute must-reads, with enough memorable quotes to demand a bookside pen.


The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed; she also has that rare talent of being able to make you think you're reading something lightweight, even disposable and then at the last minute flooring you by unleashing an unexpected torrent of significance and resonance.But as lovely and thoroughly enjoyable as these essays were, I will always be grateful for a disclosure Didion makes in the collection's short preface: "I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic." I read these several sentences at a particularly dark moment early on in my thesis writing process where I also found myself suddenly unable to string together a simple sentence, despite the fact I was writing on topic I have been thinking about for years and years and am ready to share my thoughts on. I was ready to write: and suddenly couldn't.Needless to say I wrote this out on a index card and stuck it above the wall on my desk, and now it serves as kind of a talisman, the reminder I often need of the sheer hard work of writing and that even the very best--even those who give the impression of such effortlessness and ease of articulation--must valiantly struggle sometimes too. The next day I started writing again. And while there is much to appreciate about this book, I will always treasure it for that.


Really? People like Joan Didion? Really? The best thing about this book is the fact that she includes William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming." I'd never read Yeats before and he is amazing!I always felt like Joan Didion was one of those authors I should read, and she does write lovely, fluid, effortless prose; I'll give her two stars just for that. However, the theme tying these essays together seems to be that things just aren't like they used to be. Didion was only in her thirties in 1968 when this collection was first published, and she spends way too much time whining about both her lost youth and the current state of the world. She has a nostalgia for the good old days that no one that young has earned.I'd like to read something else by her. What a waste of obvious talent to write these essays.

Benjamin Church

"In retrospect it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots--the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came ther from somewhere else, a city for only the very young." -- J.D. 'Goodbye To All That'


Joan Didion, where have you been all my life? My husband has been trying to get me to read her books for years, and I see now how blindly stupid I've been in not reading her sooner. Most of the essays in "Slouching Towards Bethlethem" are wondrous; there were only a few that didn't amaze me. (The piece on the Haight-Ashbury district, for example, dragged on way too long and wasn't as interesting as it would have been when it first appeared in 1967. Similarly, the 1964 piece on Hollywood was so enmeshed in the present that it doesn't seem relevant some 40 years later.) But the rest of the book awed me. My favorite essays were "John Wayne: A Love Song," "On Self-Respect," "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Going Home" and "Goodbye to All That." Joan Didion's writing moved me the most when she got personal. The story of celebrating her daughter's first birthday was bittersweet, knowing that in real life, Didion's only daughter died young from septic shock. And yet, I treasured that moment of Joan gazing at her baby in her crib, hoping for the best for her.I can't finish this review unless I mention the author's preface, which I confess I've read and reread several times to fully appreciate it. One night I read a paragraph of it to my husband, who said, "That's my favorite paragraph of hers." Here is a section of it:"I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone's press agent... I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through a call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so tempermentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."I could pull a great quote from every one of the essays in this book, but that would ruin the fun of you discovering it for yourself.


I've never read Didion before, and while she is obviously a sharp observer and very attuned to both her own sense of herself and to the weird frisson of America in the mid 1960s, ultimately these pieces struck me as merely okay. Not earth shattering or revelatory, but just okay. Maybe it's because like so many young Americans in the 21st century, my own filter of the world is by default set to a high degree of skepticism, and while these magazine pieces are well written, they don't seem like anything that almost any sharp person a few years older than me couldn't formulate and express (though maybe not with the same accessible prose that Didion does).Then again, maybe it's books like this that really helped weave American disillusionment into our broad cultural sense of ourselves on a very direct level and as such, I may already be deeply entangled in a perspective which books like this, if they didn't really invent, at least help to popularize.Or maybe it's because Didion's geographical focus lies in California, the idea and expression of California (and to a lesser extent New York City), and as someone who has never been to California and who doesn't really care for New York City and who tends to view people who live purely bi-coastal, urban lives as out of touch with some pretty major aspects of American geography, history and culture, I found (especially in the book's last and heavily autobiographical section) that the various personal and cultural crisis she describes tend to get treated too narrowly here.


It would be interesting to track precisely when Didion went from an essayist of surprise and guts and instinct to a useless "journalist", a neurotic upper-upper-middle-class self-chronicler and collector of the obvious--when she lost heart and became her own problems. But I read this, often over and over, and fall in love with what she was, even her outsized narcissism and implied cruelties, even her contagion and paranoia, and know that even knowing the reprehensible, shriveled porcelain doll she's become in the meantime, I still would have married her, given the chance, into a life of slow-dawning disappointment. And wouldn't you? You don't grow Didion in the modern lawntending suburbs. You grow her in the desert. As Hempel wrote once: Nerves like that are only brought off by catastrophe.

Paul Haspel

Slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the twenty essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem develop Joan Didion’s dominant impression regarding life in late-20th-century America generally and 1960’s California specifically; and that dominant impression is grim indeed.The California of Didion’s essays is a place where a mild climate and a picturesque landscape conceal a social mindset of fear and intolerance, as when a Salinas matron in “Where the Kissing Never Stops” challenges the very existence of Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence by saying, “We wonder what kind of people would go to a school like this….Why they aren’t out working and making money” (p. 42). “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” tells the story of a socially ambitious San Bernardino woman who entered into an unhappy marriage, drifted into an affair with a socially prominent attorney, and was eventually convicted of murdering her husband for insurance money; in characteristically flowing prose, Didion describes the San Bernardino setting of the essay as “not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves” (p. 3). Celebrity culture is also a core subject of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. John Wayne: A Love Song” situates Wayne’s legendary status as Western-film icon against his final battle with cancer: “[W]hen John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases. The rumor struck some obscure anxiety, threw our very childhoods into question” (p. 30). “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38,” named for the location of Howard Hughes’s “communications center,” moves to a consideration of the reasons for the contemporary fascination with Hughes’s famed reclusiveness: “That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes…tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake…but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy” (p. 71).And the title essay, a tough-minded examination of the hippie drug culture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, begins with a direct reference to Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the poem that inspired the book’s title (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), and offers Didion’s most direct evocation of the book’s themes:”The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers….It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.” (pp. 84-85)Moving from San Bernardino to Salinas, from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to San Francisco and Alcatraz, from Hollywood to Watts, from Death Valley to the Central Valley, most of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem focus in a similar way on California as landscape of alienation, where the bright sun shines down on desperate people. It is not a happy message, but Didion communicates it exceedingly well, and captures poignantly the tense and fearful mood of late-1960’s America.

blue-collar mind

Can I tell you I am shocked by those who do not know Joan Didion's writing? And there are lots of these types, I can tell you. Few under 28 has read her, and I blame the school systems that think (I assume) that she has been over praised, and yet these same schools struggle with explaining how to spot well-written, clear as bell non-fiction. Easy answer is to assign Didion and let them see it. Who said essaysists are curmudgeons and have a gift for insight into human behaviour? (Maybe the brilliant essayist Edward Hoagland?)I know that James Baldwin said that that an essay is essentially an argument, and that in an essay, the writer's point of view is always absolutely clear.In those definitions, Didion is the very model of an essayist and also just a damn good writer (I say firmly and with a bit of lifted eyebrow, in case someone out there feels like picking a fight...)...Am talking to my friend Jennifer on the phone while I write this; she is another Didion fan, so I ask her why she likes her; she says she likes Didion's fictional characters; she said the female characters are great because they are "unfathomable but interesting." "Spare and elegant" are two more descriptions from J about Didion's writing.Read these essays I say (and then read her novel "Play It As It Lays", says Jennifer.)


This is the kind of writing that makes me dizzy with admiration, envy and despair (because of the 2nd thing). Of the three sections in this book of essays, I like the reportage section least -- Life Styles in the Golden Land-- and least of those, the rather dull essay “Slouching to Bethlehem.” If there is anything more boring than hanging out with a bunch of drugged-out people when you’re not, it’s reading about a bunch of drugged-out people when you’re not. Written in 1967 when Joan visited the then-newsworthy Haight-Ashbury, it’s lost all of its topical immediacy, although there is still poignancy in the portraits of the lost adolescents searching in that subculture for things they obviously did not find. However, I did enjoy “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” an account of Joan Baez, her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, and its 1965 zoning battle with Monterey County. (Local residents were worried about the kind of subversive element such an organization might attract.) The essay profiles a classy, enigmatic star who was probably more naïve than political, whom Didion describes as “a girl who might have interested Henry James, at about the time he did Verena Tarrant, in The Bostonians. “ “She is extraordinary looking, far more so than her photographs suggest, since the camera seems to emphasize an Indian cast to her features and fails to record either the startling fineness and clarity of her bones and eyes or, her most striking characteristic, her absolute directness, her absence of guile. She has a great natural style, and she is what used to be called a lady.” (“’Scum,’ hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie,” at the Board of Supervisors meeting.)The later sections, Personals and Seven Places of the Mind, are where I really fall for this book, the essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” especially. The author’s musings, “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker” were less fodder for any practical purpose than to nudge “How it felt to me,” to “Remember what it was to be me,” and why that’s important. “Notes from a Native Daughter” conjures up the essence of place as exemplified by the farming community of Sacramento and how that essence can be swallowed up by a new culture, where, by 1950, “the outside world was moving in fast and hard.” She wants to tell us “what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” “Goodbye to All That” records her years of being young in New York City, and although I have never been to New York City, young or otherwise, I have been young, and I got it. “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.” She feels during that time “nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. “ Until it isn’t. The writing speaks for itself, a lyrical journey into our own memories and feelings via hers. What wonderful language, what talent.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *