I haven’t read all that much from Joan Didion — I loved PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and enjoyed select essays I’ve stumbled over through the years. I’ve seen PANIC AT NEEDLE PARK, read a couple of other novels, and watched the recent doc on her. In other words, I’m not extremely well-versed with her work, but I am familiar enough to know when a writer has clearly been influenced by her.
I’ve been ragging on myself as of late for my absolute inability to read influential works in any proper order, and I’m especially kicking myself here regarding SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHAM — a collection of previously commissioned essays — which I explicitly picked up because Emma Cline (THE GIRLS, DADDY) lists it as one of her favorites.
It features Didion penning a number of deep-dives into classic Hollywood, just as the studio system is beginning to crumble. (She has a singular essay about how Howard Hughes represents America and I’m absolutely shocked it wasn’t mentioned in Karina Longworths’ recent opus regarding him, SEDUCTION.) She interlopes on the set of John Wayne’s THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER. I discovered that SLEATER-KINNEY’s album THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD has that name partially because SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM is Carrie Brownstone’s favorite Didion collection. (Yes, it’s technically a line from Yeats’ poem SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM but it’s most certainly a nod towards Didion, as she writes about the importance of the poem in the preface of her collection.)
The most surprising revelation came in GOODBYE TO ALL THAT, when Didion discusses living in New York City for eight years. Obviously, Didion’s best known for perfectly describing living in California, and I’d never suspected she’d spent such a long time away from it. I should have known, given the fact that PANIC AT NEEDLE PARK is a character piece about junkies living in NYC, but I assumed she’s spent some time living there to research a piece. Instead, she lived a long journey there in-between heading back to California.
Unlike Cline, SLOUCHING isn’t my favorite of hers, but it is up there. I imagine some of the pieces will stay with me for years, while one or two I’ve already forgotten. I’m guessing any proper Didion fan has already consumed it but, hey, I hadn’t, and it’s never too late to dive into a classic.