Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can't remember how I came across this collection of essays but I picked it up because the contemporary pieces were written in the 1960s and I'd been furiously watching Mad Men, also set in the 1960s, and I felt a little something intellectual might balance my rare obsession with a television series, though I still wave the flag for the show, gently cerebral in its own right.
This is the first of Didion's work I've read. She covers the 60s counter-culture, mostly in California, writing about Howard Hughes and Joan Baez's School of Non-Violence, American film and the backward sliding of Hollywood. She reveals in the collection-titled "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", Haight Street for the sloppy drugged-out scene it was; lost souls dubiously parading for change but buried in a thick mud self-deception. Her passages are expert and perfectly executed, her language an occasional challenge that had me reaching for the dictionary, another aspect I love to find in author's work, that desire to use every bit of our extensive language.
The second section of essays are of a personal nature and my favorites. In "On Self-Respect," which I've read four times, at least, she writes, "although to be driven back on oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect." Didion was roughly my age when she wrote these pieces between 1961 and 1967, all published in magazines now out of print, save for "The Saturday Evening Post."
The final essay, "Goodbye to All That," lights on her eight years spent living in New York, sentiments for which I am very familiar. Funny, I've been thinking a lot about writing on New York lately, of course, in total honesty, I have thought about doing that all along. Perhaps, in Didion's shadow, a simple essay would suffice instead of the again-submerged collection of perspectives I keep dreaming about. We both spent our twenties in the Enchanted City , youth and energy and the unwavering belief that opportunity waits around every corner may not be specific to New York living, maybe it's only a city thing, maybe it's simply grander in that city. Or maybe it's simply, as Didion writes, "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 notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before." In any case, she's got me wanting to write more, and that's always worth five stars.
There is a darkness, a sadness that pervades every piece, an element of anxiety about the future, which will hold me from rushing into reading more of her work, though a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking sits presently on my shelf. Her sober stare into reality, one reality, has me thinking and considering - bravo. But life is short and I prefer it sweet, so I will savor these few essays for a time before moving further into Didion's oeuvre.
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