Joan Didion’s collection of essays contained in Slouching Towards Bethlehem was all “written for magazines during 1965, 1966, and 1967” and most were “[her] idea.” She notes, “thirteen of the twenty pieces were published in The Saturday Evening Post.” Didion writes about Joan Baez’s school, John Wayne, people getting married in Vegas, the lifestyle around Haight Street, etc. To be forthcoming, I did not finish this collection of essays, stopping on page 141 out of 238 pages.
My biggest issue was the distance between Didion, who is acting as an investigative journalist, and her subject matter. Oftentimes, her presence is so absent that I assumed several pieces were written based on research from other sources, though she explains that she visited these places herself. The first piece, one I found interesting, was about a death that didn’t add up, one that had to be murder, and why police thought so. Didion’s distance reads as if she’s put court transcripts and video clips in order to make a narrative.
That’s the other problem, though. Most of these pieces don’t have a narrative arc. Why did write about John Wayne? In the preface, she points out, “I think I was asked to write about John Wayne.” This hesitant assertion does not clarify if it was her idea to to write the piece, or even if she spoke to The Duke himself. The bits included are confusing, though I did get that it was the actor’s last movie and that he was suffering from cancer. I read and read for 134 pages before I highlighted anything after the preface because I couldn’t figure out what was actually meaningful.
I finally quit when I read Didion’s piece called “On Self-Respect.” She’s not researching anything, just writing her thoughts. Perhaps this essay did not make it into a newspaper? Basically, I had to quit because I couldn’t stand her writing style anymore. Here is an example:
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes.
Let me puzzle through this: when Didion realized she didn’t like herself, she continued to write down everything she did wrong, but is now ashamed that she did? I’m working too hard on this. Many people worry what they’re missing out on when they don’t finish a book. I’m tired of trying to weave the tapestry when Didion was simply showing me some threads and a sketch of her final product. She needed to do her job as a journalist and write cohesive articles, avoid giving her opinions on the subjects, and help readers come to their own conclusions.