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.”

There’s no mistaking the judgment in that description, just as there is no mistaking the sense that Lucille Miller’s greatest sin isn’t that she may have murdered her husband (Didion remains remarkably nuanced on that issue), but that she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Yet the author recognizes something of herself—something of her inner weather—in the young apparatchik:

As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments: I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.

I know something about dread myself. The phrase reverberates throughout her entire body of work. “You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the ameliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor,” Didion writes in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. She continues: “I have trouble making certain connections. I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point. The point itself seems increasingly obscure.”

I remember reading those sentences in that early summer of 1980, just days after devouring Slouching (I read the two books back to back, which may be why I think of them as companion volumes), and telling myself, Yes, that’s it precisely, that’s the story of our time. The center does not hold, bad things happen to good people, and the consolations of narrative are shaky at best. This would seem to contradict Didion’s signature line from The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But even that lovely sentiment doesn’t tell the entire story, as Didion clarifies in the next, less quotable paragraph: “Or at least we do for a while.”

Indeed, this tension between the need for narrative and the narrative-resistant “atomization” of our culture is the engine that drives Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Again and again we sense Didion’s subjects clinging to a shred of story, to some idea of the way things ought to be done.

David L. Ulin is a contributor to CJR.