This is the story Didion tells throughout the essay, even as she appears to tell no story at all. There are a handful of principals to whom she periodically returns: Max, who “drops a 250- or 350-microgram tab [of acid] every six or seven days,” and his teenage girlfriend, Sharon; Arthur Lisch, one of the leaders of the Diggers, who worries that the influx of runaways to the District will lead to a full-blown humanitarian crisis; Chet Helms, of the Family Dog, who in one of the essay’s most revealing asides informs Didion that “fifty percent of the population is or will be under twenty-five” and “they got twenty billion irresponsible dollars to spend.” (Long live the revolution, indeed.) The structure is loose, even rambling. Yet the chance encounters prompt some of Didion’s most incisive commentary. At one point, she meets a pair of teenage runways, Jeff and Debbie, and eventually notes:
We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. At some point between 1945 and 1967, we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.
This is the warning my mother meant to give me, although it was unnecessary in the end. As much as I wanted to think of myself as a stepchild of the revolution, I was not wired for a nihilism so profound. In the penultimate scene of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion meets a five-year-old named Susan who “lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, ice cream, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach.” Susan is also tripping on LSD.
“For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote,” Didion writes, in her usual tone of sun-bleached neutrality. “Susan describes it as getting stoned.” Then, for the only time in the essay—in the collection—her mask of cool detachment drops. “I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.” It’s a simple moment. All these years later, however, it evokes the depth of the breakdown, the cost of the fragmentation, the loss of the narrative.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is undoubtedly a document of its time, but it also has a lot to say about the present, by telling us how we got to where we are. Barack Obama is one descendant of the cultural shift Didion traces in these pages, with his patchwork story, self-constructed and stitched together by sheer intention. Sarah Palin, with her blatant disregard for history, her cynical faith in her constituency’s willingness to forget, is another. The birthers and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists exemplify our lack of common narrative, as well as the notion that belief alone is now enough, in certain quarters, to make something true. “How much of it actually happened?” Didion asks at one point. “Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores.” If Slouching Towards Bethlehem has anything to tell us, it’s that these questions remain as elusive as when Didion first posed them, in an era much like this one, when, as Yeats would have it, we no longer know “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”