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July 15, 2012

Slouching Towards Bethlehem for the 6th read

I do make a point of often rereading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but mostly because it’s just that quite often I get the urge to do so. And it’s usually summer when I do, like last week on the coattails of Valery The Great. I read Slouching last in 2010, and wrote quite a bit about it. This time, my reading around was coloured by having read Didion’s new book Blue Nights last fall. I’ve already written about how much her new book is a response to the voice we hear throughout this book, to her 32/33 year-old self who imagines (in “Goodbye To All That”) that she’ll never be so young again, who has figured that “someday it all comes” and that it even stays.

And yes, it’s jarring to encounter Slouching… with the perspective of Blue Nights. I’d never thought about Quintana in the context of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay, but I wondered where she’d been, and noticed Didion herself in the essay more than I ever had before: “Norris says it would be a lot easier if I’d take some acid. I say I’m unstable.” I think of the simplistic way that Quintana herself is described in so many of these essays: “Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singular blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.” Quintana was one when that essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” was written. It’s so odd that the normally astute Didion would ever imagine that any person, especially in their infancy, could be so known.

I reread this book with the perspective of Mad Men too, and Lucille Maxwell Miller in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” came right out of the world, even on the opposite coast. Same with the “Slouching…” essay, the disintegration the show begins to grapple with in Season 5, which ends with the beginning of 1967. And yes, this essay reminded me of the present too, as it probably ever will, but even more than it did when I read it two years ago:

“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snaked shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”

I understand the “Personals” essays better and differently every time. I love “Notes from a Native Daughter” which is a preview of one of my favourite Didion books, 2002’s Where I Was From. I continue to find “The Seacoast of Despair” completely incomprehensible, every single one of its references a blank space for me.

And, mostly profoundly, I think I have finally grown out of “Goodbye to All That”. I still think it’s as lovely as I ever did, but it no longer makes me want to hang yards of yellow silk from my windows and cry in Chinese laundries. I no longer think it’s romantic. It’s dawned upon me that the voice of experience in that piece is still so absolutely, so tenderly young. Blue Nights, of course, emphasized this point, but I probably would have seen it anyway. I still love the part where she writes, “I would stay in New York, I told him, for 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 for eight years.”

But I’m started to realize that who we were at 23 means less and less as we get older, and that the decade we traverse to get to 33 is still absolutely nothing compared to the journey just beginning. That we shall be made so young and stripped of our illusions over and over again.

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