Is there a way to resolve this? Slouching doesn’t offer much in the way of hope. One can always surrender to nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, less fragmented era. Didion herself is not immune to this impulse, even as she recognizes the fleeting nature of its charms. “John Wayne: A Love Song,” ostensibly a report from the set of The Sons of Katie Elder, becomes an unlikely evocation of her own feelings of loss and longing. “As it happened,” she writes, “I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”
The tone in the Wayne piece is reminiscent of “Goodbye to All That,” the collection’s closing effort, and its most personal: a scabrous account of how the author fell out of love with New York. “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” she insists, then catalogues all the ways her dream (that favorite Didion word) of the city as a kind of cosmopolitan fantasy fell apart. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth,” she writes later in the piece, “when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
It’s impossible, reading that, not to think about the Haight-Ashbury essay my mother so wanted me to absorb. It is an account from ground zero of the splintering of everything, of the atomization that Didion finds both fascinating and dreadful. Constructed as a series of fragments that don’t so much build as circle around each other, like planets around a dead sun, the piece makes narrative out of the absence of narrative. “He came up from Los Angeles some number of weeks ago, he doesn’t remember what number,” she writes about “a kid, sixteen, seventeen,” who has been shooting speed for three days, “and now he’ll take off for New York, if he can find a ride. I show him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He wonders where Chicago is.” Even four decades later, the moment leaves us with a feeling of discomfort, an almost physical sense of just how badly things have gone wrong.