book by Joan Didion
annotation by Jacqueline Heinze
A month shy of my graduating from college and moving to New York, a dear friend handed me her stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s essay “Good-bye to All That.” In Claudia’s version, four actors would represent Didion at the different ages the author refers to in her essay. There was Didion at twenty, and twenty-two, and twenty-eight. I played the oldest version of Didion, the writer living in Los Angeles reflecting back upon her time in New York. (At the time, I had a sophisticated short haircut that I think could make me look older than my peers.) We, this handful of actors portraying Didion, stood stationary in our spots on a proscenium stage and delivered lines from the essay directly to the audience. Two decades later, I still have nearly three-quarters of this essay committed to memory. (We did not perform every word; Claudia had edited it.) I also remember vividly what this piece meant to me. “Good-bye to All That” affected me in a way I had no words for at the time; “it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story” (228). I knew only that the piece plucked some fiber, some thread, inside of me that had grown taut since I had begun to become a woman and now I was vibrating with a life experience I hadn’t even yet had. Of course, when I did move to New York, my experiences would be different than Didion’s, but I would get caught in the rain in front of the Plaza and so duck into The Paris and catch whatever movie was showing, and I would cry walking crosstown late one morning in the same stiletto heels and tight jeans from the night before. There would be both romance and wretchedness in spades. And, ultimately, I would leave New York and make Los Angeles my home, but I knew nothing of these things when I first read this essay that somehow captured both who I felt I was (of course I wasn’t; I was nearly completely unformed) and who I wanted to be. I write all this because I feel compelled to admit, not without shame, that it took me twenty years to read the rest of Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is with nearly equal shame that I confess I struggled with the book.
There is no doubt Didion is brilliant. Consider this sentence:
“Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in it venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniforms” (80).
It is one of many sentences that demands a second reading; one of many that bursts open the page with its insight, imagery, and language. Didion constructs entire complex worlds between a capital letter and a period. Yet the writing is clear. The second read is not necessary to decrypt the meaning, but to linger over its assembly and marvel at the richness of the language.
But the greater theme strung among these essays is unsettling. The collection examines the decay of the moral fabric of the United States during the mid- to late-sixties, but the focus is on the West, and more specifically, on California, Didion’s home state. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion captures a national desire to chase mirages. Through piercing observations, and yet in her quietly nonjudgmental tone, she suggests we are driven by a vague sense that dreams will come true, and although the dreams themselves are nebulous, the belief in them survives long after the harsh light of reality has eclipsed the golden glow. An underage, pregnant bride cries tears of joy because a cheap, gaudy, shotgun wedding in Vegas was everything she dreamed it would be. In Haight-Ashbury, a child is given hallucinatory drugs. Regardless, the dream hangs on. About California, Didion writes that it is “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (172). That sense of suspension is inescapable from the first page to the last. And so is Didion’s cool tone. She holds readers beyond arm’s length. No matter I portrayed her on stage, after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I felt that Didion was an intentionally elusive artist, a mirage in and of herself. So, despite her perfected artistry and her penetrating wisdom, and just as much because of them, I was often restless and on edge as I grappled with this book.
There were passages that returned me to the Didion I discovered at a 20. Her serial construction—the repetition of subjects or verbs or simply the word “and”—were welcomingly familiar to me. I scribbled, “Classic Didion!” in the margins next to phrases such as, “I am going to find it difficult to tell you why…” (188) and “…which I’m talking about here” (205). At these moments, I no longer hung above the work. Instead, I was back on stage, standing in my own blinding stage light and vibrating as I delivered her words into the darkness.