To revisit Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the paperback editions just released by 4th Estate, is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays, the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar – if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life. Read ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’ and see if you do not recognise the man in the modern scene. ‘Actually I was interested not in the revolution but in the revolutionary.’ Where things are moving too fast she fixes a focal point. She captures the way the language becomes more memetic, more meaningless just as the ground begins to swell under the feet – as if the herd, sensing some danger, must consolidate its responses. Her adept turn to political writing in the 1980s and 1990s showed the same prescience; if you are tuned to where the language goes strange, you will anticipate the narrative they’re going to try to sell you.
She herself is now powerful, runs the criticism. There is a danger in her, and it is the same danger she suggests in ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’: that the stories first tell us what it was like, and then they tell us how to live. Like the desert, she imposes a style. ‘Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.’
There is something to this. Her essays take place, for many people, in some innermost hotel room. We are there as she unpacks the items on her iconic list, sets the bottle of bourbon on the desk, calls home to check the time, lies down in the dark when the aura comes. Why are we closer to her? Why do we feel, along with her, the shaking of the hand narrowing down and down to the steadiness of the pen? A peculiarity of my own: among all her books, I had not read The Year of Magical Thinking, because my own husband, whom I married very young, on whom I depend and in whom I store half of my information, has a family history of heart attacks – to be more specific, the men on his father’s side all drop dead in their homes at the age of 59. ‘As long as I don’t read it,’ I often thought to myself, and thought no further, though I kept the book on a low shelf. Whenever the swimming-pool colour of the spine caught my eye I saw a kitchen, and a telephone on the wall with a long curling cord, and my own hands not knowing what to do. ‘As long as I save it, against that day.’
This is personal, but we have seen both the deep personal and the wide diagnostic in her, it is all tied together: South and West, the fracturing 1960s, a line of ancestry across the country. The earth rucking up like a dress bought where, bought when. The wagon train and the plane rides of the sentences. Someone’s on track. The assay scales and the choosing of the words. Her grandfather a geologist, herself a seismograph, her daughter sobbing ‘Let me be in the ground.’ The cowboy and the one who strides beside him, the Broken Man, the childhood bogeyman Quintana and she so feared. These things are together in our reading. Through long investigation into fracture she has brought them together, and somehow we are there in the centre of her thinking, in the place where she is working it all out. We are told it does not hold. It holds.
Perhaps she promises that synthesis, even of a time like this, is still possible. ‘I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ Perhaps she offers the feeling that if you write the facts down, the facts might somehow remain standing at the end, after the end. There is a small, unobtrusive reporter in the corner. She has outlasted everything else.