Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion

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Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.

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In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

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