Reading for Writers: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion, all based on the theme of things coming undone. She looks at this theme from a variety of angles, both personally reflective and also commenting on society at large. In this collection, Didion makes very interesting use of narrative structure when retelling events, adding to the feeling that “the center cannot hold” (xi).

Didion begins her book with the famous poem by Yeats in which he examines things coming undone. She also titles her book after the last line of this poem, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In her Preface, which is quite strange, Didion explains her collection. In rather defeatist, pessimistic terms, she presents us her work. She says that it is representative of her coming to terms with “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” (xiii). Throughout the book, the reader can feel this sense of crumbling and a loss of groundedness or centeredness. We see it in the way that her rock-like ideal of John Wayne falls apart with cancer and the way that she struggles with ethics in “On Morality.” Didion wrestles with ideas of a world coming undone, both the larger society and on a more personal, individual level.

However, this effect is most interesting when it comes out in the structure of her writing. This is apparent from her very first essay. In “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion does, in fact begin at the beginning of the story. “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country” (3). However, after a bit of background about the place and the history of the place, the linearity of the essay begins to fall apart. Like the falconer losing hold of the falcon, the essay almost seems to get away from Didion. She jumps from the background of the land to the death of the husband, to the funeral. She starts a new section with the birth of Lucille Miller through to her unhappy marriage and then brings her lens in close on the day in question before recounting Lucille’s arrest, jumping back to the night of the accident and then to the building of the case. The next section recounts her affair starting with a generalization and jumping straight to the end, before explaining more. Then Didion recounts a litany of events that happened the same day as the Miller trial began before recounting the trial and bringing us up to the present day at the time of writing. In this present day, she focuses in on the house left behind, the child of Lucille, and the inmates that Lucille is surrounded by instead of focusing in on the main character of the essay itself. The essay then returns to the past, ending at Arthwell Hayton’s second marriage. This jumping and twisting of time, structure and focus mirrors Didion’s words of things falling apart. Not only is the time not linear, but the lens of the narration moves too, sometimes focused on Lucille, sometimes the place, sometimes those whose lives mirror hers, such as her fellow inmates, others in the news the same day, or Arthwell Hayton’s new wife. This poignantly gives the reader the effect that the center, cannot, in fact hold. We can feel the way that Lucille must feel, that her world is unravelling, and also the way that those watching the story must feel: what is becoming of our society?

This is most powerfully shown in her essay after which the collection is named. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion gives us a picture of San Francisco in the 1960s. However, she does not explain it to use as much as she makes a pastiche of vignettes to give us a picture of the chaos and disorder of that place and time. She tells us from the get-go what she is getting at: “The center was not holding” (84). She tells us what is missing and how the reality is not meeting expectations. She gives us an array of sources to show us the disparate voices: a sign trying to find a missing person (almost perversely in verse), communiques from Chester Anderson, song lyrics, an excerpt from a newspaper, questions asked to her by other people, fliers. The weaves these throughout vignettes of stories of people she’s met in her time in the Bay Area. Even when telling the stories of these people, she jumps: from Deadeye to Max to little girls to runaways to Debbie to Officer Gerrans, back to Max. And that is just the first quarter of the essay. It’s not even clear that the vignettes are arranged chronologically. This cut-and-paste of the stories she experiences in San Francisco serve to further the feeling that things are coming apart: people are not acting as they should, time is not moving as it should, the narrator is not recounting as she should. Instead, the people are out of control, time is set spinning, and the narrator’s hold on the gyre is slipping.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices. May contain affiliate links.