Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks "STARDUST" or "CAESAR'S PALACE." Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with "real" life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.
And yet the Las Vegas wedding business seems to appeal to precisely that impulse. (Marrying Absurd from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion)
Joan Didion's book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is her debut collection of essays written in the 1960s. Filled with vivid observations of America during that time period, you can see the strength of Didion to draw you into a setting or context through sheer detail. In this particular essay entitled Marrying Absurd, she details the Las Vegas wedding industry, at that time a haven for young people trying to remedy a "problem" like the draft or an unexpected pregnancy.
She chose to focus on one specific element of Las Vegas and expand with specific accounts that gives the reader the ability to grasp exactly what getting married in Vegas looked like at the time. Reading it now, provides an excellent foundation for comparison across decades to further examine how things have evolved since. I'm sure now we associate Las Vegas with more than "shotgun" weddings, but honestly, a lot of Joan Didion's observations still hold true today. #womenshistorymonth
Adolescents drifted from city to city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-person reports, then moved on themselves. (Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion)
In the "cold late spring of 1967" Joan Didion immersed herself into the culture of the Haight-Ashbury community in San Francisco, CA. In the title essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she details her observations and often convoluted conversations with runaways and drug addicts, all of whom in their varied methods are trying to escape. What Didion does brilliantly is try to find answers without prying, this isn't an interview. She lives alongside and captures the essence of a "counter-culture" without exploiting it or succumbing to it. This essay masterfully illustrates her gifts of being so detailed and methodical with her expression that you can experience the climate with all five senses. #womenshistorymonth
I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather."
Easterners commonly complain that there is no "weather" at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire.
(Los Angeles Notebook [1965-1967] from Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion)
One thing about writing is that those who do it best are masters of painting pictures in our minds. Joan Didion's style of immersing herself into a culture and soaking up the environment allows her to artistically express words in a very specific and dynamic way, in which the reader becomes connected to the setting so much so that they can visualize themselves there.
I definitely recommend her work for readers seeking engaging non fiction that in ways mimics fiction. Didion through her description is able to bring characters to life even though they are very much real people. The places become characters too, with her lifelike and polarizing qualities she gives them. She gives you insight into places you may have never been, perhaps aren't even curious about visiting. That is, until you read her words.
Additionally for writers, she is a great example of how to capture the mundane and make it interesting. Even if you aren't able to just settle into a random group of people for months and deep dive into their personal lives, the challenge should be to paint a picture of them so clearly that it appears as if you did. #womenshistorymonth