Full disclosure, I really can’t stand the west coast. More particularly, I don’t like California. Even more particularly, I hate Los Angeles. With that said, it was hard for me to commit to reading this prominent collection of essays. The last thing I wanted to do was read someones “insider” thoughts on the good life in LA. I don’t think my eyes could roll far enough into the back of my head at the mere notion. Luckily, Joan Didion gives us much more than this.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem is, above all else, brutal. The descriptions of people, places, and events in this book are clear, realistic paintings, yet the prose is sparse, I would even go as far to say Hemingwayesque (ironic though it may be). The stories are straightforward relays of every west coast, Hollywood trope so that the reader can pick up something not so clearcut, the emotions. And Didion likes her emotions dark, bleak.
I think the most telling line comes in an essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” near the end of the collection. Didion records a conversation between two men. One of the men is describing how he lives near a neighborhood where, “they got one square mile with 135 millionaires.” The man he is talking to simply responds that a square mile with 135 millionaires is simply, putrescence, to which the first man responds, “So give me putrescent.”
This little dialogue reveals a major theme echoed throughout the pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The majority of the characters in these stories have managed to accept an image that looks great, even enviable. But it’s simply a shell, and what is beneath is putrid, or even nonexistent, there’s nothing left of them besides the shell. And every person or subculture is subject to this harsh critique. Even Didion herself, who’s style suggest an intense emotional distance. (she describes, without the bat of a shocked eyelash, a hippie’s infant almost chewing through an electrical wire while the parents trip on acid in the next room.) This style helps the essays, but instills no desire, in at least this reader, to meet Joan Didion through any means besides her writing.
In many ways, this collection feels like a bit of an antiquity. For example, Didion has a harsh critique of the movie industry here entitled “I Can’t get that Monster out of my Head.” She absolutely eviscerates several directors and movies they had recently released, including Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove. (She hated the movie which is sheer blasphemy) The essay was written in 1964. I have to wonder what shift in opinion may have occurred for Didion had she written this essay ten years later, in the midst of one of Hollywood’s golden ages. It’s small details like this that makes Slouching feel slightly dated. The main messages though, the real human messages at the heart of this collection, are still dead-on. Given Didion’s penchant for muckraking the human soul, this relevancy is slightly unnerving.