Here Didion exposes the underside of the great Golden State myth: that it is a land of reinvention, in which we escape the past to find ourselves. For the Millers (and by implication, countless others), it is a land of disconnection, in which we are not reborn but lost. Such a theme colors the whole of Slouching. It is there in “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” a biting portrait of Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in the Carmel Valley (“a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer, a place where everyone can be warm and loving and share confidences”). And it is there in the bleak, fulminating title essay, with its vision of Haight-Ashbury as the epicenter of a children’s revolution:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn 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 the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

There is here a strong whiff of class consciousness, or an innate conservatism—or more accurately, a bit of both. It makes sense, given Didion’s status as a former Goldwater Republican (she started out writing for the National Review) turned social observer in a culture collapsing inward on itself. This is the source of her cool, ironic distance: what she called, in a 2006 interview, her air of “triangulation.”

She addresses the same topic in her preface to Slouching. “My only advantage as a reporter,” she declares, “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.” This is, you could argue, the basic rule of journalism; like any reporter, Didion has to negotiate access, which she then uses to her own ends. But she is also talking about the larger picture, the round-robin of chaos and self-deception which permeates the book down to its smallest details.

Sometimes the chaos is explicitly political. In “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)”—the very title of which makes trenchant sport of the tortured fragmentation of the 1960s radical left—she profiles the twenty-six-year-old “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist), a splinter group of Stalinist-Maoists who divide their energies between Watts and Harlem.” Despite this tongue-twister of a title, Michael Laski strikes Didion as a boy terrified of chaos, living in “an immutably ordered world.” Comrade Laski, she observes, “had with him a small red book of Mao’s poems, and as he talked he squared it on the table, aligned it with the table edge first vertically and then horizontally. To understand who Laski is you must have a feeling for that kind of compulsion. One does not think of him eating, or in bed.”

David L. Ulin is a contributor to CJR.