Joan Didion is not for those who are romantically nostalgic for the past, those who would ignore the facts in favor of what they imagine it was like in 1960s America. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, some of her best nonfiction is collected, articles ranging from topics as varied as John Wayne, Howard Hughes, California hippie communities, and the Las Vegas marriage industry. Didion observed all of these things with a sharp eye, but she is not unsympathetic. Her writing has a clarity and irony to it and manages to skewer without being cruel.
Her best writing, in my opinion, is about her native state, California, in the article which lends the collection its name. Subtly, she lets the reader in on her frustration with young people who are aimless, kids and runaways with naive views on important topics. One girl tells her that her father wrote her a letter imploring her to go back to school, and she wants to eventually, but doesn’t see the point at the moment. After some thought, Didion asks the girl and another boy what they wanted to be when they were young, but they are vague about it. A lot of the people she meets are vague about what they mean. In another scene, she writes about a group of people she met and her observations of what happens when they allow her to watch while they take acid. It’s a very funny scene because nothing happens for hours, only some noises from outdoors, until finally one of the men breaks the silence with a “wow.”
Didion avoids mocking these people, however. She instead makes them human, using dialogue to her advantage to allow the reader to make judgments rather than doing it herself. She can see that the hippie community is not just about drugs; the overly innocent and naive people she meets are part of a larger political movement even if they do not realize it themselves. The leaders take advantage of the larger aimless group, encouraging their ignorance and the idea that words and thinking are egocentric and bad. Didion writes an impassioned defense of language:
They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words—words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.
The collection as a whole reinforces this idea of the invaluable nature of words. Didion lets the stories speak for themselves, only offering her opinions to lend her narratives an extra jolt when needed. She is one of the rare writers who has an instinct for when to save the unveiling of the most important point for the end.
My favorite quote comes from the last essay in the collection, “Goodbye to All That”, about her decision to leave New York City: “I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.” It is a quote that mirrors the tone of the entire collection, a series of essays which are well-written and surprising, sometimes devastating, but pragmatically representative of a time and place.