Slouching Towards Bethlehem

ISBN: 0374521727
ISBN 13: 9780374521721
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts

Jill Malone

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


A word of advice; don’t read Didion before you go to sleep. Or first thing in the morning. Or on a day when you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Her words will follow you around, and once they’re lodged in your brain, well, good luck doing anything else but contemplating them over and over again. These essays won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; they are piercing, often brutal distillations of the author’s social anxiety—Didion pours all of her insecurities about herself and the world at large into these pieces, and at times you can almost feel her nerves tensing and her head throbbing as she goes round and round the prickly pear of 1960’s America. Didion’s terse, fearless ingenuity turns even a potential puff piece into existential exploration; an article on Howard Hughes’s house becomes a ruthless deconstruction of the American dream; a trip to Las Vegas kicks off an exploration of modern-day marriage so ruthlessly incisive that it almost comes off as mean-spirited. And when she’s dealing with the Big Stuff, strap on your hard hat; the titular essay attacks the hippie movement with such keen ferocity that you’re likely to lose any remaining traces of Woodstock nostalgia. For the most part, this is a stimulating example of New Journalism; but the personal essays are just as good, if not better, than her newspaper work. “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping A Notebook”, are required reading for anyone interested in non-fiction writing. If Hemingway had written in the 60s and 70s, his work probably would’ve looked something like this: devastating in its honesty, agile in its economy, and voltaic in its cumulative power.


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.

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.

Greg Brown

To read Didion for the first time is to regret not reading her earlier.The first section is a wonderful snapshot of California at a particular stage of its existence—not pulling in those searching riches, as in the Gold rush and Silicon boom, but instead in those seeking a certain set of values. Those were the days when you could actually hitchhike, when your life could begin again in a new city. Sure, Didion goes the route of showing how darker intentions can lay under the placid, flourishing exterior of California's boom. But she also shows us places where there really aren't any dark impulses, or any impulses at all besides the urge to shut out the world.This all comes to a head in the title essay of the book, whereby Didion bounces around San Francisco drug culture at around the same time that it was also portrayed in Pynchon's Lot 49. Unlike Pynchon, though, Didion's disaffected harbor neither suspicions nor aspirations of grand schemes—only a solipsism disguised as enlightenment or self-improvement.I'm going on a tangent from the book here, but Didion's portrait of the era notably eludes a single question: why did this drug culture spring forth, and why did it go away? Here's a stab at a thesis.The first answer has to be the dissolution of institutions; while that's been happening for a while, the combination of civil rights, second-wave feminism, and Vietnam was quite potent to the youth of that era. All three were quite destabilizing, at least the first two for the better.So why did this culture stop? Well if the effect of drugs were to anesthetize yourself from the worries of the time, another development quickly outpaced drugs in both variety and reach: modern advertising. Advertising and consumer culture offer a release by buying things, while drugs are a more direct method. And those without money—those who advertising doesn't care to speak to, and those who have the most horrors to escape—are the populations still ravaged by drug abuse. Again, this is just a provisional thesis, but Didion's damning portrait of drugs as solipsism practically oozes from the page.Didion's personality comes across in the opening and closing sections as an ever-present undertone, but asserts itself for the personal essays that comprise the middle third. There's a tremendous force of will there, along with an accepting understanding that she's fundamentally damaged goods—jarringly attested to by multiple asides. Didion would win a staring contest with the abyss.All this talk about Didion's tone and ideas may obscure the most wonderful part of the book: her prose. She exhibits a tremendous command of the language—beautiful when she wants to be, but one of the all-time pithy greats when not. An image recurred in my mind while reading, impossible to quash or push away for long: a steel cable pulled taut, ringing from the tension. Aside from being a joy of craft, these qualities only add to Didion's thematic elements of a fallen race.By the end, the collection title that seemed a mere lodestar at the outset has become a thudding truth. For Didion, death and loss suffuses all. She remembers New York City with the pure fondness of someone who accepts those times are gone, and doesn't harbor nostalgia's hidden bitterness that they ever went away. California—and to an extent, Hawaii—are a strange attempt at societal tabula rasa, constantly sweeping away the past to create itself anew, but beset by forces that would continue the cycle, do the very same back. Deliberately forgetting the past will only do so much to stave off its effects, and not learning words to describe the gathering storm… that won't stop—not even for a moment—the violent crash of reality.

Ryan Chapman

This woman writes like I think. When I'm at my most lucid and firing all of my synapses. The essay "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" was as great as I'd heard. "On Self-Respect" was shattering in its clarity--Didion doesn't write about things, the writes them wholly. And the last piece, "Goodbye to All That," about living in NYC, was beautiful at parts. I just hope I don't drown in myself the way she did and have to move.

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'


Surprisingly, I found the title essay to be the weak link in this collection: too meandering and alarmist, in my opinion. Most of the others were sharper and often wonderful, though, especially the one about her girlish infatuation with John Wayne, another about the pleasures and neuroses involved with keeping a private journal, and another about being young and naïve in New York City (during the bittersweet twenty-something years when you're giddy about your expansive future and its myriad possibilities, before your plans get rerouted and often completely swept away — for better or worse — by reality's alternate schemes). Despite functioning largely as a 1960s zeitgeist-capturer, this collection is wise and well-written enough to avoid seeming outmoded; thoughtful readers will find plenty to appreciate 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.


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.

Quinn Slobodian

I realize what is disturbing about these essays and what leaves the acrid aftertaste on the leftist tongue about Didion. And I don't think it has much to do with her relatively measured take on the drug-addled Haight-Ashbury scene. For better, but admittedly and sadly often for worse, the radical leftist imagination has been characterized by a willingness and a desire to leap out of our skin into the skin of others, to experience a jump of radical empathy in which the concerns of "they" become the concerns of "we," to see through many eyes the way Virginia Woolf allows us to do. Which is why, especially if we are white, we vilify our roots because we often see in our own family histories, a palimpsest of larger histories of injustice and oppression. We have a melancholic view of history, in which moments of utopian potential are consistently being snuffed out in the name of "order" and "tradition," the very values, in other words, which Didion spent much of her time in the 1960s eulogizing. She is writing funeral speeches for the passing of milieus whose only apparent meaningfulness is that they are connected to her own biography. Why we should lament the disappearance of the pathetic stagings and affectations of a dusty fake aristocracy is not clear to me, why we should take the survivalist grit of the pioneer generation as ethical models for the present even less so. The Indians are amongst us, protect your own, defend your lifestyle against all costs. These are the imperatives of the Right, old and new, Goldwater and Bush. Circle the wagons against the strange and the new. I admire Didion for the razorblade incisiveness of her critique but her unwillingness to open her subjectivity up to the world makes it difficult to think of her as an ally.

Aric Cushing

Incredible. The nonfiction piece 'Dreamers of the Golden Dream' I have read over and over through the years. An incredible depiction of California desert life, and the 'true crime' murder of a dentist. I cannot do it justice here because I am writing quickly, but this POSITIVELY is a MUST READ, if not just for the first nonfiction piece in this voluminous collection. (This entire book is also in the collection "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live", which is all of Didion's work.)

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.)


I loved the sheer beauty and rigor and power of the sentences. I'd never read anything by her before but I'd heard great things. I picked this up for 50 cents on a lark and found it to be ideal subway reading. I don't say this lightly, mind- I spend a lot of time reading on subway ( ars is pretty longa and vita is DEFINITELY brevis ) and having a book that meshes well with the overal mise en scene is key. It might be that Didion seems to be uniquely fascinated with urban landscapes and the ephemera of modern people, or that she wrote many of these pieces for magazines and thus erred always on the side of accessibility and flow, or just that she's a damn fine writer. Does it matter? "Goodbye To All That" was as luminous and poetic and tough-minded and vivid as its reputation insisted. I haven't had the depth of experience with NYC that she obviously does but I flatter myself to think that I could really relate to what she was writing. I could see myself in the prose as in a particularly well done movie; the silent second lead, as it were. Pretty much every time she was either reminiscing or leaving some place or reminiscing about leaving some place her prose really started to hit these amazing, subtle, breathy and breathtaking cadences. The in-person profile of John Wayne was also interesting and somehow economically true-to-life. She writes that when she was young she saw a movie where Wayne states that he'll take the girl he fancies to the place where the water-lilies grow- she has always dreamed, albeit ruefully, that someone would take her there someday. It's a sweet, subtle, sneakily personal moment which caught my breath when I read it. There's something to the way she can quietly inject herself into the tone and flow of what she's writing about so that the seam between herself and the world, objective/subjective voice becomes miniscule, not to say meaningless. I love this kind of writing- magazine profiles are always a special treat- and I guess Didion deserves much of the credit for pioneering it alongside the more borborygmous practitioners of the New Journalism, your Mailers, Thompsons and so on. She makes it severe, language-wise, rationing out her lyricism to distill it for maximum impact. The reader learns pretty quickly not to mess with their author's judgments. And this is my gripe, with this book at least (the only non-fiction of hers I've read): she seems to only pick up the pieces of the most annoyingly shoddy, vapid and delusional characters. Californians of all stripes come out for the freak show on Didion's home turf: be they drippy hippies, Joan Baez's radical chic socialist summer camp, dogmatic and humorless commies selling nickel newspapers by the beach, or murderous adulterous couples who make big, ill-alibi'd splashes in their adenoidal misadventures- possibly the only great moments in their whole boring lives. Everybody here seems a caricature. It might be true to life- I wouldn't and couldn't know, having never set foot in Cali- but it seems to be very much a shit on a shoe situation, w/r/t Didion's brilliantly lucid all-seeing-eye. It might be me, but I couldn't shake the feeling that these characters and scenarios are interesting to her because they are so fucked-up, drained, and wasted. The cumulative effect is one of aggregated enervation leading to slight but distinct exasperation. I mean, pointing out the hollowness of the 60's counterculture is all well and good, but what with the portentious, doomy title and the near-callous, scornfully raised eyebrow of disapproval I start to take Didion's judgments with ever-increasing grains of salt. You can either shake your fist in the street or you can get some kicks out of laughing your ass off, and wouldn't it be more interesting, all Modern Urban Malaise considered, to crack a joke once in a while? Plenty of artists and writers satirized the same social and moral landscape with seemingly similar values in mind (one might think of West, Wilder, Pynchon and Zappa, just to name a few, not to mention HST, a near-peer whose zest for the absurd only partially redeems the fact that he can't write a paragraph, or even a sentence, on Didion's level) but they did in their own ways with a bit more bravura, wit, and sympathetic understanding. Didion doesn't need to like these people- I mean, really, who could?- but she could easily have disliked the people she writes about with less of a scowl and overblown intimations of apocalypse. Didion can write masterfully- I wonder if she can laugh half so well. There's an interesting article I read awhile back in The Atlantic magazine that delves into Didion's role as a literary and cultural presence from a totally different and interesting perspective which might be worth reading, if you're reading this: For the record, I don't think Didion is being narcissitic or maudlin, I really got the sense that her social anxieties were real (rather than the hipster confections we see every friggin day on the tv or eavesdropping confabs over vegan coffee beans under paintings of sad koalas) and that most importantly they made her a better writer. Mirror to nature, fly on the wall. Man, do I ever feel that, btw. Reading her took me back to undergrad (or last week) when I spent many interminable evenings sociologically trying to interest myself in the company I kept, bored out of my sockets, silently sitting cross-legged and watching everything everybody did, ostensibly storing it up for future reference but coming away feeling bored, despondent, and a little lost. Where have all the good times gone? As she herself remarks, in one of her many brilliantly wise, mordant aphorisms, "writers are always selling somebody out." It's not a gender thing, either. I could give a hoot in hell for the overblown HST theatrics and the exaggerated clowning for addled insights which were never truly there where it counts, where it has always counted, IN THE PROSE. I had more friends than I cared to who thought he was the second coming of Christ and that his books qualified as real bona-fide literature. Some do, surely, but the reach exceeds the grasp for decades at a time. HST yearned with all his little heart to write like Fitzgerald and suffered the unlucky fate of being more or less the kind of writer who people who don't really cherish literature for its own sake assume to be great writing. Didion seems the stronger writer by far in terms of (and precisely because of) her openly acknowledged subversive, steel-spined modesty. Her shit detector seems solid, shock-proof and substantial, as grizzled papa's was so rarely. My (major) beef is that, in STB at least, it's constantly blinking red.

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.

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