Slouching Towards Bethlehem
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"Didion's essays of a world featuring barricades and bombings, mass murders and kidnapped heiresses make recent history as filtered through her seem a savage and passionate drama, something you can put a hand on and feel it beating, something you can put your ear to and hear its story."
"Brilliant, troubling, indelible tales and reflections."
SAN DIEGO TRIBUNE
"Reveals a wholly original analytic mind, a sensibility as expansive and idiosyncratic as a 19th-century novelist's."
"Our quintessential essayist."
JERRY KOSINSKI, 'LA Times'
From the Inside Flap
Upon its publication in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem confirmed Joan Didion as one of the most prominent writers on the literary scene. Her unblinking vision and deadpan tone have influenced subsequent generations of reporters and essayists, changing our expectations of style, voice, and the artistic possibilities of nonfiction.
"In her portraits of people," "The New York Times Book Review wrote, "Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us actors and millionaires, doomed brides and naive acid-trippers, left-wing ideologues and snobs of the Hawaiian aristocracy in a way that makes them neither villainous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful. . . . A rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country."
In essay after essay, Didion captures the dislocation of the 1960s, the disorientation of a country shredding itself apart with social change. Her essays not only describe the subject at hand--the murderous housewife, the little girl trailing the rock group, the millionaire bunkered in his mansion--but also offer a broader vision of America, one that is both terrifying and tender, ominous and uniquely her own.
Joyce Carol Oates has written, "Joan Didion is one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe. Her powerful irony is often sorrowful rather than clever. . . . She has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Her piece about the sixties in Haight Ashbury, when the flower-power `revolution' was happening, is suitably sceptical of the times and the culture of San Francisco's hippy scene. Drug-taking, child neglect and sexism, lay just under the counter of the synthetic sixties, yet there is a sense of the freedom, or an illusion of freedom, wafting in the air. She does not write much about the music, however, which remains a severe loss to the totality of the picture painted.
The hippy article and that of the title, are the most interesting pieces in the book, which consists elsewhere of a kind of travelogue of various places where Didion has lived. The title comes from the W B Yeats poem and sets up a dark frisson which is never quite lived up to in the content.
"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, it's hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
The essay that lends its name to the title of this collection is the longest, "Slouching towards Bethlehem," concerning Haight-Asbury in 1967, and a title taken from a W.B Yeats poem. It is a sad, honest portrait, and Didion highlights the inarticulateness of those who washed in, seeking a new utopia. None of the portraits show much empathy, and some are justifiable frightening, particularly how the young children were being raised. And she foreshadows the dark side of what would become of the "summer of love."
Overall, the collection of essays is divided into thirds, with the first part focusing on various aspects of California. I felt the strongest one is "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which concerns a woman who fled a fundamentalist existence in Manitoba, marries, pursues the "dream," and eventually burns her husband to death. There are other telling vignettes on John Wayne, Howard Hughes and Joan Baez, along with a "Comrade Laski."
The second section of essays are personal reflections, such as the thoughts on maintaining a notebook, and the third section is entitled "Seven Places of the Mind," in reality her reflections on visits to her "real" home in Sacramento, and others on Hawaii, Alcatraz, Newport, R.I., Guaymas, Mexico, her new home of Los Angeles, and NYC. Literary references abound, from the title given to the Sacramento piece, "Notes from a Native Daughter," and she thought it suitable to borrow Robert Graves' reflections on WW I to mark thoughts of her youth in NYC, Good-bye to all that: An autobiography And proving that it all ties together somehow, I just purchased a book entitled "String Too Short to Keep," and in Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook," she says about a particular entry:"...about bits of the mind's string too short to use..."
The essays are replete with her observations on life, beautifully expressed: "As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for oneself depends upon one's mastery of the language..." Concerning the "palaces" built by the obscenely rich of another gilded era, she says" "that the production ethic led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living." In another essay, the one on the "hippies," she is assured that, at 32, there are "old" hippies too. And of her youth in NYC, after a long lunch with Bloody Marys and gazpacho,: "I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world."
A wonderful, 5-star read, for one of those delightful, remaining afternoons. Thanks for the re-issue to FSG Classics.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 30, 2009)
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