Slouching Towards Bethlehem Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Didion

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Slouching Towards Bethlehem Analysis

As disparate as the pieces are, certain themes emerge; not the least of them involves Didion’s theory of “atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” Inspired by Yeats’s poem, Didion appears convinced that the United States, in the last half of the twentieth century, is undergoing a cataclysm, a major unraveling of the individual and social fabric, in which chaos has come to define the ordinary course of events.

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” recounts Lucille Miller’s sexual infidelity and presumed murder of her husband. As Didion depicts it, Miller’s story becomes a modern morality play, complete with greed, lust, and homicide. As the title suggests, the principal players stumble about in states of delusion, dreaming the wrong dreams, misinterpreting the implications of the American Dream, and eventually allowing “the dream [to teach] the dreamers how to live.”

In “Marrying Absurd,” Didion aims her sights at Las Vegas and the “quickie” marriage industry which thrives there. Here she argues that Las Vegas, in all of its impermanence and unreality, operates as a fitting metaphor for a prototypical American industry. While her tone is wryly cynical throughout, she also strikes a note of despair when pondering the implications of transforming one of the most profound human experiences into a tawdry commercial venture.

“On Keeping a Notebook” details the often-inscrutable minutiae Didion includes in her notebook. As she reveals, these objects (napkins from a bar, for example) and observations mean nothing to anyone but herself and often appear to have no clear purpose or importance. In rather Proustian ways, however, they recover the past, bringing Didion back to where she once was and how she once felt. In one of her most eloquent passages, she writes:Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the [people] we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

Atomization is not merely a theme but a structural device she frequently invokes. Its most dramatic appearance comes in “Los Angeles Notebook”; the essay opens with a description of the effects of the Santa Ana winds on the inhabitants of Southern California. Many readers assume that Didion is arguing for a causal relationship between the Santa Anas and aberrant behavior. Her point, however, is that they reveal “something deep in the grain,” something already lying dormant: “The unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows how close to the edge we are.”

The remainder of the essay is then divided numerically into four separate vignettes—one dealing with a radio talk-show, another with the author’s encounter with a woman in a supermarket, a third with a nasty Beverly Hills party, and the fourth with a conversation in a piano bar. On first reading, these completely independent anecdotes make no apparent point, but on closer examination they reveal a divided, hostile society where predatory impulses have replaced all sense of shared purpose and community.

Another important Didion concern involves the antithesis of illusion and reality, and one of the most dramatic examples of this disjunction occurs in “John Wayne: A Love Song.” Didion took this assignment reluctantly, for she had always admired Wayne and the larger-than-life image he portrayed in all of his films. While Wayne still conveys that presence on the screen and even in some personal conversations, he is an older, definitely ill man. Recovering from surgery and suffering from a severe cold, Wayne must retreat each day to an inhalator. As much as she wants to retain the silver-screen image of Wayne, Didion is also forced to consider the actor’s weakness and...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)