Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is a collection of essays Didion wrote in the 60s, a time in American history fraught with tension especially in California, where she was living at the time. There is a removed intimacy in the essays, a delicate balance of personal and professional that I can only state comes through in her voice. There is no attempt at weaving these essays together thematically; rather the collection reads like a fragmented mirror, shards of glass reflecting one part of an overall story. Piece the fragments together and you get nothing more than a broken mirror that cannot reflect clearly and therein lies the ultimate triumph of this brilliant collection. There is no attempt at cohesion because the essays are about a time when the country itself was frankly falling apart. Most remarkable is how Didion infuses each subject with a sincerity bordering on love. When she writes about John Wayne, even the disenchanted reader can’t help but find herself (because I am speaking of myself here) finding some modicum of admiration bubbling up. Joan Baez and Howard Hughes both emerge on the page in their still sparkling image, not yet faded into forgetfulness due to changing morays or paranoid hermitic living. And in spite of this compassion she exposes most of these people, from the idealistic hippies of the 60s to the imperialistic wealthy residents of Hawaii, as wonderfully flawed, unable to see themselves clearly. But there is no arrogance in this, for Didion dares to turn the mirror on herself and soon exposes her own inability to see herself clearly. When she writes in the second section about how her notebook would offer no insight or anything of significance to anyone but herself, the reader is compelled to agree; until by the third section where Didion shares glimpses of her notebook, without philosophizing about the content or expounding on the moment in which the section was written, and the reader is devouring with a curious eagerness the very thing she had protested nobody else would or could find edifying. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of essays and feel a gratitude that Didion’s voice was in the right place at the right time and that she had the commitment to share herself through sharing her experiences and encounters with others. It’s a shame that more collections like this are not being published and that writers are encouraged to find a personal scar, shred that open until it bleeds onto the page to offer the reader yet another memoir. How exciting it would be to see some of the memoirists step aside just enough to share the spotlight because, in the end, the light would beam brightest on the one who does the writing. And now I am all the more eager to read her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Yes, I see the irony of this statement. Take it for what it is and enjoy.

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