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.

When, late in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Lucille Miller is convicted of killing her husband, her confidante Sandy Slagle starts to scream in the courtroom. “Sandy, for God’s sake please don’t,” Lucille pleads, as if there were a decorum for her situation—as if the worst thing imaginable would be to make a scene. “Marrying Absurd” highlights a different sort of disassociation, between the tinseled banality of the Las Vegas marriage mill and the desire, still prevalent in the America of the mid-1960s, to get married in “a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.” At first glance, this essay seems to be no more than an anthropological fluff piece. For Didion, though, it’s another chance to explore the yawning gap between who we are and who we think we are, between those stories we tell ourselves and the ways we actually live.

David L. Ulin is a contributor to CJR.