A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

Book Book Review, Title Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Author Joan Didion, Rating 3.0,

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion

Book Review

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.
(page iii)

Joan Didion's set of personal essays from the mid-60's, an exercise in the emerging New Journalism and most in the first person, are episodically brilliant, but just as often facile and self-indulgent.

The best examples of New Journalism demonstrated that a truthful narrative can be constructed by mixing the subjective with the objective, by mixing the very personal with the factual. Tom Wolfe’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s best work in this genre produced genuine insights, and with Wolfe especially, showed more depth and balance than the writer’s tone might otherwise led one to expect.

Unfortunately, Didion struggles in these essays to strike a similar balance, and disappoints with too little love for the integrity of the subject. There is a pervading sense of disapproval and lack of sympathy for the people and events she reports on, as well as a sense of condescension and dismissal, with more than a whiff of Schadenfreude. Her multi-layered single sentence observations that seem at first perceptive often curdle into the shallow and mean; e.g. "This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school." (page 5)

In the author’s title essay, Slouching towards Bethlehem, she ponderously alludes to Yeats’ poem The Second Coming (see below) with both her title and her first line: The center was not holding. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, you know. Why, just take a look at the pathetic lost world of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, populated by the drug-addled and sexually permissive hippies.

For every generous and probing observation, for every personal insight, and they can be found here, are also found narrow privileged viewpoints disguised as broad sociological and cultural observation. Perhaps seven years of writing for Vogue was not an ideal formative experience for echt New Journalism.

While some revelation was surely at hand, her gaze was too often pitiless as the sun.

The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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