Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

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I can’t believe it took me so long to read (or listen to) this! I’ve had this latent, mildly unkind disinterest in Didion’s work for a dumb reason. I had to read one of her books in an undergrad class called “Politics and the Novel” (I won’t tell you which one), and I guess I didn’t like it. The class was taught by a Poli Sci prof who liked to read, rather than a stuffy old English prof or a chic/smarmy writer-type: the course was a noble endeavor, but somehow I missed out on the heart of the Didion conversation.

I listened to the audiobook of Slouching Towards Bethlehem with Diane Keaton narrating, and you pretty much can’t get any better than Keaton doing Didion.

This is an old book (published in 1968), and its episodic, short, perceptive essays by a then-thirtysomething smart writer create, really, this stunning portrait of California and the Sixties. The portrait is along the lines of other literary portraits that capture cultural landscapes (The Great Gatsby?) or the significance—this is so totally one of my favorite thematic preoccupations—of place/geography (The Grapes of Wrath?). It may feel dated to some readers, and it may seem historic to others. I think, in truth, it’s both; this era is over. But Didion captured it!

You should watch Mad Men around the same time that you’re reading this to get its power in full-force.

Really, I just found myself wanting so very much to do what Didion does here. She’d hang out on Haight-Ashbury; she’d talk to hippies on drugs; she’d look into the life of Joan Baez. She’d talk to people involved in love-turned-murder scandals. She’d contemplate the idolization of John Wayne.

Writers, this is why you have to get your hands on this old book. It makes one want to write that kind of narrative nonfiction, simultaneously invasive and private, poignant but kind, highly articulate and observant. She is like some kind of undercover spy here, EXCEPT SHE’S A WRITER!

The book’s title comes from the W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem).” It might be worth reading it, as Didion does successfully capture its sentiment in prose:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Some essays were more interesting than others. I’ll highlight a few.

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the opening chapter. With a murder mystery at its center, it’s a kind of Stepford-Wives glimpse into the secrets behind marriage and pretty lives and religion-gone-astray. Didion writes, “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”

“On Keeping a Notebook” is my favorite. I. Can’t. Even. Required reading for all writers. I really think she gets to the heart of the compulsion to write, or at least a dimension of it, by acknowledging that she does it to know “how it felt to be me.” This is a fairly profound admission: a lurid confession. Our claims at documentation or reportage are shrouds, masks, shiny veneers we use to hide writerly myopia.

“On Going Home” speaks, maybe, in a more universal way to readers. While many of us are not writers, most of us have homes (for better or for worse). In this, Didion writes about a visit with her husband and daughter to her parents’ home in the Central Valley of California. What I really loved about this piece was how she wrote of her husband’s sudden displacement: “My brother does not understand my husband’s inability to perceive the advantage in the rather common real-estate transaction . . . and my husband in turn does not understand why so many of the people he hears about in my father’s house have been committed to mental hospitals or booked on drunk-driving charges.”

“Rock of Ages” is a peek into Alcatraz in San Francisco. It closed in March 1963, which has always seemed like ancient history me. To Didion, writing in 1967, the mystery may not be so mythical—like it is now. I found myself wanting to know what became of people she mentioned. I thought about googling them; I didn’t. That happened at several points in the book, though. She’d slip into a life with its occupant, and I’d be engaged—in the ordinary. When she stopped writing, I’d be asking, “But what happened next?”

“Goodbye to All That” is a love-hate song to New York. Damn, it’s a true essay! She writes, “I was always there for just another few minutes.” Tell me about it.

I’ll carry parts of these essays with me forever. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” she writes, in the introduction. Ouch!

Oh, and the Hughes essay made me think of Trump. So that whole issue of this book being dated may be obsolete. History is repeating itself? What goes around comes around?

The White Album: Essays calls to me.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.

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