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.