slouching towards bethlehem // joan didion

Book Reviews / Monday, July 27th, 2020

The force of Joan Didion’s writing astounds me. I think her secret lies in only telling what she knows, and telling it true, out of the corner of her eyes – “remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” – she never shies of laying bare her own feelings, her own loneliness and inadequacies, and she always lets her dusty-valley Sacramento childhood shine through everything she writes.

“Goodbye to All That” is probably the most personal of her short stories I’ve read so far, and it happens to be my favourite, because I saw a familiar face somewhere between the lines, saw my own optimistic, stupid youthful splendour there, and had a presentiment of my own melancholy, feeling now as she did then, like I am at the point that she described as “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, has ever happened to anyone before”. She re-traced her own self by reminiscing on the young, awestruck girl she was when she came to New York City to stay for a few months and ended up staying eight years, and comparing it to the terror she felt at the end of those eight years, the heaviness that came with all the missed chances, that came with one’s life being continually pushed further inwards, with everything that did not happen in the way the bright-eyed young woman at the temporary Idlewild airport thought it would. She shaped and outlined it all, gave it perfect sense and harmony – how she lost her New York City to the golden dreams of her youth, and had to trade it in for L.A., any place which was not that, where she once was that bright-eyed young girl.

Melancholy is a word, I think, that Joan Didion knows well. And it just so happens that she’s a writer of fierce intelligence and of precise imagery, which gives her the ability to depict it as something ugly and painfully beautiful at the same time.

The name-giving essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, is a brilliant piece of almost-investigative journalism. “ […] and because nothing else seemed so relevant, I decided to go to San Francisco.” Didion went to live in the Haight Ashbury district to witness the slow but steady erosion of the hippie-era, to witness the derailment of what started out as something hopeful into something destructive and sad. And “witnessing” is exactly what she did, and what I think is this essay’s particular strength – she watched. She met people, young runaways or old drug dealers, hung around in warehouses and wrote down what she saw and whom she met, without subjective commentary, and in that way painting as vivid as possible a picture, leaving us to draw our own conclusions of how it must have been at that time, in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.

Not all of the essays in this collection are melancholy, though (even though it seems as if the ones that are, are the ones to appeal to me most). She takes us from forlorn Alcatraz to sunny, imperial Hawaii and back to the shadows of Hollywood, and always finds something interesting to say about all these places, and more importantly, about herself within these places, in that distinctive voice of hers.

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