Didion, Joan Entries

Slouching Towards Bethlehem


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.

Essay Mondays: Didion


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

How have I waited this long to start reading Joan Didion? Chalk it up to my oft-misguided tendency to avoid things that everyone is raving about, perhaps. In this case, I can safely say that I've stayed away too long; the Lopate's Didion selections more than live up to the hype.

In particular "Goodbye to All That," her tribute and farewell to the eight youthful years she spent in New York City, struck a balance I really admired between nostalgic and cynical. I should say straight off that I've never particularly fallen in love with the romance of New York City myself, although I know it holds potent allure for so many. I'm certainly not immune to falling in love with the idea of a city: it's happened to me with London, with Paris, even, to some extent, with the seedy bygone Los Angeles I found in Raymond Chandler novels. New York and I were never particularly meant to be, though; in fact I often find myself annoyed by the assumption on the part of New Yorkers that their city is the acknowledged center of the universe and everyone would live there if they could. All of which is just to say that "Goodbye to All That" holds appeal beyond the romance of the New York scene. I have, of course, heard it quoted by people who do share young Didion's infatuation, who feel it expresses their own youthful love affairs with New York, and reminisce over passages like the following:

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.

But although I have never sighed with longing to eat a peach on Lexington Avenue, I think Didion is actually describing something much more universal here: the giddiness of being young, living on one's own for the first time, when everything is new and exciting and you're not sure how or if things will work out. Being pretty certain that the way you're living your life is not sustainable, and casting caution to the winds because this is the way you glory in living right now. Those years, for Didion, took place in New York, but I can't help thinking they could happen anywhere: friends of mine spent theirs in Denver, or Philadelphia, or Olympia, or Ashevile, or Montreal, or Portland. That first giddy foray into adulthood, when earning enough money to keep yourself going feels like a tightrope act, and you have the frequent impulse to call out, like a kid riding her first bike without training wheels, "Hey, look at me! I'm doing it!" And the world feels so full of so many different kinds of people and experiences; everything comes as a novelty.

I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name "Debbi Lynn" or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.
        Nothing was irrevocable; everything was just within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about.

Inevitably, the giddiness doesn't last forever: the novelty wears off, the regular gambit of experiences come to seem like a chore instead of a delight; the thrill of living provisionally (Didion relates that she came to New York for six months and stayed for eight years, always expecting to take the next train back to California, which seems to me such a fitting metaphor for my own mental space in my late teens and early twenties) wears off and a person starts wishing for a more stable existence, one they can feel at home in for the long term. Again, Didion relates this process to New York itself: for her, it's a city in which to be young, and her implication is that she might not have had such a crash or identity crisis at twenty-eight if she had been living somewhere else. I find this hard to believe; in my experience, twenty-eight to thirty is often a difficult time of transition, and if a person isn't moving from New York to California, they're going back to school, or having a baby, or starting their own business, or taking some other similarly large life step (I know a few 28-year-olds, in fact, who moved TO New York City last year as part of their big life changes, as well as one who moved to Gainesville and another to Louisville). Nevertheless, despite her nostalgic New York-centrism, Didion does a fantastic job at evoking this process of gradual disillusionment and realization—eventual realization, because it comes on painfully slowly—that a change is desperately needed.

I remember one day when someone who did have the West Village number came to pick me up for lunch there, and we both had hangovers, and i cut my finger opening him a beer and burst into tears, and we walked to a Spanish restaurant and drank Bloody Marys and gazpacho until we felt better. I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world.

This essay is a joy to read; I loved Didion's balance between nostalgia and wry self-criticism. More than that, it brought up questions about which aspects of one's identity are provisional and which are lasting, whether the core facets of a person change over time, and how huge life changes, the things we look back on as most meaningful in the long run, are sometimes initiated by happenstance, or a casual whim. As I mentioned a few days ago, I picked up Didon's collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem as part of my birthday trip to the bookstore, and am eager to sample more of her work.

Up next week: The final Essay Monday (at least for now): Richard Rodriguez, Gayle Pemberton, Scott Russel Sanders, or Lopate himself.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography