I came across a Facebook post recently in which someone offered W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” by way of encouragement to a peer going through a quarter-life crisis. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats writes. It’s a feeling everyone has at some point, but for a 20-something in the midst of an identity crisis, it sounded especially appropriate.
Joan Didion must have felt the same way when she chose the poem as an epigraph for her essay collection of the same name. It was Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not Yeats’s poem, that has been my totem throughout my twenties, because she has that gift that all great writers do of hitting on universal truths by admitting very personal ones. “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before,” she writes in “Goodbye to All That,” an essay about her time in New York in her twenties.
Reading that sentence for the first time at twenty-one and knowing, at some level, that she was right was not nearly as comforting as realizing that there was an antidote to feeling young and confused—and that antidote was narrative. As Didion writes in another equally brilliant collection, The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The trick to getting through your twenties intact, it seemed to me, was looking ahead to the narrative I could impose on that decade later in life.
I don’t recall why I first picked it up, but I can still conjure up the musty smell of the paperback I borrowed from the University College London library and the jarring contrast of being engrossed in Didion’s 1950s New York during a train ride between London and Manchester.
Mostly, I remember how homesick I felt reading Didion’s take on the American dream at a time in my life when, living far away from home for the first time, I was finally figuring out my own national identity. The irony of this feeling is that Slouching Towards Bethlehem isn’t what you would call a “feel-good” read. Most of the essays are set in California in the ’60s, some of them are reportage on Haight-Ashbury hippies and Howard Hughes, and others, personal reflections on Didion’s life in exile from a California that “resembles Eden,” where “it is assumed that those who absent themselves from its blessings have been banished.”
Throughout the book, Didion is constantly shuttling between the coasts, back and forth from this promised land. In “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” in which Didion reports on a woman who murders her husband, she writes, “The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.” California stands in for the American dream: its streets are always paved with gold, but its promise is never attainable. Didion’s writing—and her whole concept of California—nonetheless operates on the premise that all things are possible, because they have to be:
California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
But Didion’s California (and New York, for that matter) is a promise that never delivers, which she nonetheless can’t seem to give up. She admits, “Someone who lives always with a plane schedule in the drawer lives on a slightly different calendar.” I understood that differently upon first reading it in England—during a semester abroad in which all time was suspended for me and all post-graduate futures infinitely possible—than I do during my fourth year of racking up frequent flier miles on the US Airways shuttle between DC and Boston.
It’s a romantic point of view to hold when you come from a place that makes you feel exiled for living outside it, and in that sense my hometown of Boston and Didion’s Sacramento have much in common.
Mostly, I keep reading and rereading these essays because Joan Didion is a writer’s writer. In the spirit of her declaration in “Goodbye to All That,” I have to imagine that there are many other twenty-something writers out there with dog-eared copies of this book, but since I haven’t met them yet, I continued to think I was the only one for years after I discovered her. More recently, I have taken to recommending her to anyone whose literary taste I’m trying to judge. I lent a friend my copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem once with the earnest warning, “If you don’t read this, we can’t be friends,” and during the months while I waited for him to return it, I sometimes worried that I would have to cut him off.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem isn’t just a collection for hopeful writers or even for people who are young and unmoored. It’s for all people who have lost their sense of place or sense of time or sense of self. It’s for “the quiet ones” that people always tell you to beware. Didion is all of these things, but especially the last:
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.
It’s easy to forget that line in the preface once the essays about Charles Manson and John Wayne give way to more personal ones about Didion’s relationship with her hometown and her grapples with self-esteem. It’s easy to think instead that the stories she tells of her struggles with depression are unvarnished, but at some point you have to ask: Why is this self-proclaimed shy, aloof reporter spilling so many of her secrets?
Her power to mythologize is so great that it must extend even to the stories she tells of her own life. Early in “Goodbye to All That,” Didion writes, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” But by writing years later, she already knows the ending; she alone controls the narrative. In life, sure, it’s easy to concede that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” but writing is different from life, and the contrast between the two in Slouching Towards Bethlehem makes the former a much more appealing occupation.
This is part of an ongoing series, produced in partnership with Tumblr Storyboard, to highlight Tumblr writers (and the books they love). This is the last in our Storyboard series, but you can still submit your Last Book I Loved essay to LBIL (at) therumpus (dot) net — with the name of your book in the subject line.