When I decided to undertake my essay reading project I knew I would read Joan Didion and have been eagerly looking forward to it. Didion is an acclaimed American essayist and witness to and chronicler of some of the more tumultuous decades in American history. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, was her first nonfiction work and is my starting point. The essays in the collection were published in various magazines during the mid-1960s and deal primarily with life in California, where Didion had been living. In her introduction Didion writes:
"It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder."
I'm very curious to see how she deals with this theme of atomization and disorder. Certainly the world of the 1960s seems ripe with the overturning of the ordinary and conventional and I suspect many of her essays will deal directly with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. I'm also keen to get a taste of her prose as I've heard she is a concise and pared down writer. Her work is included in both the anthologies I've been drawing from and Philip Lopate calls her a "fastidious prose stylist."
"She has produced work that has grown in syntactical complexity and intellectual density over the years, sometimes to the point of mannerism."
When she was a teenager she would type out Ernest Hemingway's short stories "to learn how sentences work" and was heavily influenced by his style. I'm not at at surprised after reading the first essay of the collection, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream", which deals with a suburban murder. There's not a wasted word in the essay yet she tells a vivid story. What I like is her ability to narrate yet not judge. "New Journalism" is the term applied to her style of writing (also called literary or creative nonfiction), which combines "reportage with personal, subjective disclosure."
"This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves."
On the night of October 7, 1964 Lucille Miller drove with her husband Gordon "Cork" Miller to the market for some milk. Cork had been tired and complaining of a migraine so he brought along a pillow and blanket. He let his wife drive while he fell asleep in the passenger's side. Sometime between the hours of 12:30 and 1:50 a.m. Lucille reported that she skidded off the road on to an embankment, a gas can fell from the back seat and set fire to the car. She was unable to rouse her husband and extract him from the vehicle (his door was locked). That stretch of road had no houses and almost no traffic. She finally was able to get someone to call the sheriff, but by then it was too late. Her story was not believed and riddled with inconsistencies. Within twelve hours she was booked for the murder of her husband.
Like so many others who hear the siren call of distant places, Lucille came from somewhere else. "Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story." Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she was the only child of school teachers and devout Seventh-Day Adventists. Lucille wanted to see the world. She met Cork in Washington at college and eventually moved to California where he became a doctor and Lucille took care of their three children. And they had it all, or at least wanted it all--bigger houses, better streets, revolving credit. And they achieved it, but it didn't bring happiness. So what happened? What makes a woman look out her window and calculate how to "burn her husband alive in a Volkswagon."
"Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know too much about the course of this one."
Conventional is a word Didion uses often in this essay and conventional is what Lucille and Cork's life was, though perhaps that's not what Lucille wanted and maybe that was enough for her to do the unthinkable. "The conventional tensions of love and money had reached the conventional impasse." Lucille had applied for a divorce, but shortly thereafter they were trying to work things out and considering having another child. There were rumors and accusations of infidelity and denials by other interested parties.
"What was most startling about the case that the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers to live."
So you see, the center will not hold.
This was an exceptional essay and I'm sure it's not even her best. I do love her style, though I'm not sure it's only her prose style or what she writes about that captures my attention and imagine so, and I can't wait to read more. And I plan on moving on to The White Album next.
You might be interested in seeing Lucille Miller yourself.