Forty-four years ago, in the preface to her first book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion wrote: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
It was an appropriate opening salvo for a writer who would become — and who remains — the most consistently interesting and quotable essayist in the English language. At the beginning of her career, Didion announced herself as the owner of two voices: the voice of the throat and the body, which stumbles in service of the other voice, the writer’s voice, the register of the interior life, which has asserted itself ever since with a great and intelligent ferocity.
The writer’s voice, which has been heard for so many years only in the intimate space created by the reader’s imaginative engagement with the words on the page, has now found a richly appropriate vessel in the narration of Diane Keaton. Keaton's delivery is fluid enough to accommodate not only the stately elegance of the sentences belonging to Didion, but also the many emotional colors of the other voices Didion embeds throughout her stories.
When a losing defense attorney in a murder case accuses a prosecutor of demanding (and then waiving) the death penalty “to get anybody with the slightest trace of human kindness in their veins off the jury,” Keaton allows a subtle inflection that offers just enough cold bitterness to allow us to feel as though we are hearing the prosecutor speak, but not so much that we don’t forget that we are hearing the prosecutor speak through the reporter. And when Didion offers her memory of John Wayne giving orders in the westerns of her childhood, there is more than a little of the Duke in Keaton’s diction: “Let’s ride.” “Saddle up.” “Forward ho.” “A man’s got to do what he’s got to do.”
Because many readers will be familiar with Keaton’s long career as an actor, it is natural that some of that shared history will bleed into the experience of listening to her audiobook narration. Here again, Keaton is a well-chosen narrator. Her audacity and her oppositional intelligence are a fit match for a set of essays that insist upon calling California “the golden land where every day the world is born anew,” populated by “dreamers of the golden dream.”
The title essay, the centerpiece of the collection, leans heavily upon the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” from which the book takes its name. The poem’s first stanza famously announces, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” and ends: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Yeats, of course, was writing in the wake of World War I, and the poem couldn’t have been any more prophetic, as throughout Europe, terrible regimes were in the process of being replaced by regimes that would go on to perpetrate the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Indeed, the apocalyptic imagery of the Biblical Second Coming wasn’t terribly far from Hitler’s Final Solution, Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine, the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American nuclear bombs.
Didion’s ground zero of the center not holding was the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, 1967, although from the first paragraph of the essay, she makes clear that the whole country is the subject she intends to see through the lens of the place “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up.” “It was a country of bankruptcy notices,” she writes, “and commonplace reports of casual killings and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled ... People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.”
The context is the upheavals of the late '60s – Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the generational conflict, the rise of the counterculture. As Didion writes in the book’s preface, she had been “paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.”
For a reader of my generation, raised in the presence of much retrospective myth-making about the utopian ideals of the hippies, and grateful for the social advances that those struggles made possible, Didion’s reporting is a bracing, sometimes shocking corrective. The essay’s final two movements concern the lives of the children of dropouts, one of whom, a 5-year-old girl, has been “getting stoned” for the last year, on acid and peyote given to her by her mother.
At the same time, Didion can see clearly what so many of her contemporaries cannot. “Of course the activists — not those whose thinking had become rigid,” she writes, “but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic — had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important.”
There is something here, perhaps, for our own time, a time in which we have likewise lived with wars and generational inequities and stackings of the deck by the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but in which public demonstrations of outcry, the Occupy movement aside, have been considerably less present in the popular consciousness.
In other essays, Didion can’t help but read a homiletic of history in the landscape. On a visit to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s “The Breakers” in Newport, R.I., she sees a “sermon in the stones.” “The world must have seemed greener to all of them,” she writes, “out there when they were young and began laying the rails or digging for high-grade ore in the Comstock or daring to think that they might corner copper ... Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadows of migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?”
There is a throwaway quality to most journalism, most essaying, and, let’s face it, so much of what passes for literature. When time passes, when events are over, when the debate of contemporary thinking has been fused into the hindsight of conventional wisdom, so little of the writing that once seemed so urgent retains its urgency. But these essays, in interrogating their own particular place and time, invite the listener to ask the same troubling questions about this particular time, and, meanwhile, they carry with them the virtue of being uniformly beautiful. So the publication of a new audiobook edition of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” becomes an opportunity for celebration. If anything, the passing of time has amplified its urgency and its import.
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