Book Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
“I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is my fourth Joan Didion book this year. I have really enjoyed everything I have read by her, even though The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights were both grief memoirs and therefore, heavy subject matter. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was Didion’s first work of non-fiction, and it was on my Fall TBR list. I have not read any of her fiction yet, but I kept reading this collection of essays and thinking to myself how incredibly timely some of the essays still are, even 50 years later. If you’re looking to read any of Joan Didion’s work, I think Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a great place to start.
The titular essay is a long look at San Francisco, specifically Haight-Ashbury, in the spring of 1967. Didion interviewed and befriended a lot of hippies. This may be naïve of me, but when I think of hippies, I think of Woodstock. But Didion’s reporting gave a much darker view of the counterculture movement. The drug use was rampant, it didn’t seem like a lot of people had regular jobs, and it was a lot of communal living. Most of the people who had fled to San Francisco were just kids, some of them barely sixteen. However, it is essays like this that cemented Didion’s legendary status. Even though Slouching Towards Bethlehem was her first essay collection and her writing style evolved throughout the years, the heart of her writing is in her ability to turn phrases. She is such a gifted naturalistic writer, that I could easily imagine myself sitting next to Max and Sharon in their grungy apartment while they are on an acid trip.
One of the most intriguing essays in this collection was “Marrying Absurd”. It is a short essay about the marriage scene in Las Vegas. Even in the late 1960s, Vegas was the hotspot for a quickie wedding. My favorite line in the essay is,
“All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”
I have never been to Las Vegas and honestly, have no desire to go, but reading this essay confirmed all my previous thoughts on wedding chapels in Vegas. I’m sure they’ve only gotten tackier and more clichéd since Didion’s essay, but it is nice to see that some things have stayed consistent.
In 1964, Didion wrote an essay called “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind” about the state of Hollywood in the 1960s. At that point, the Golden Age of Hollywood had pretty much ended. Didion writes about the attempts Hollywood began making to create more personal and individualistic films, leaving the big studios behind. Even though this was fifty years ago, so much of what Didion said resonated with me. Most of today’s blockbuster movies are superhero and action movies (which are not for me), yet the ones that get the most recognition are the ones that took a creative leap and did something nuanced, like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. (It all comes full circle because Didion grew up in the Sacramento Valley and her essay “Notes from a Native Daughter” was about how Sacramento came to be, and Gerwig’s Lady Bird is her personal love letter to Sacramento.) Didion understood that all those years ago, and I would love to see what she thinks of Hollywood now.
Like I said earlier, I have really enjoyed everything I have read so far by Joan Didion. She has become one of my favorite non-fiction writers, and I do at some point want to read her fiction. If you are looking for a great essay collection, definitely check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem. There were so many moments throughout this essay collection where something clicked with me, despite it being fifty years old. I give it 4 stars.
What are some of your favorite essay collections?