Whose Voice Are We Hearing?

Joan Didion says it herself: she is not a “camera eye” (xiii). One would be hard pressed to argue that she is not a talented writer, especially when it comes to portraying a scene, of which there are many between the covers of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As a creative nonfiction writer, it is Didion’s responsibility to decide how much of her recounting stays true to reality and how much is left to fiction. As creative nonfiction readers, it is our responsibility to interpret the scenes with this in mind. Whether she artfully fudged a few scenes, remembered something incorrectly or deliberately portrays certain information to push a certain agenda is all within her bounds as a writer, even hinted at as having occurred by in the aforementioned quote. Having said that, I would argue that Didion is incredibly meticulous when it comes to “selling someone out,” and she does so with as much class as the dirtiest politician: she uses her subject’s own words to their disadvantage.

As a journalist, Didion comes into contact with vast amounts of people; in the eponymous work, we are introduced to well over fifteen named characters within the first couple pages, and plenty of unnamed characters as well. If she were to give every character equal page space, equal representation, then she might still be trudging towards finishing the piece today. Instead, she must opt to pick and choose who to present to the readers in order to accomplish several goals: entertainment, story telling and, something Didion is notorious for, criticism of American culture. In the Poetics of Joan Didion’s Journalism, Muggli argues that Didion’s work is defined by her “presentation of objects and events” (Muggli 1). I’d agree wholeheartedly, and go on to say that her harshest critique lies within the voice she provides that she provides to the people she writes about. In the closing paragraphs of Marrying Absurd, we are presented with a scene of an incredibly young pregnant girl getting married (haven’t we all been warned of this scene time and time again? Already we can’t help but look down on the girl for making such a silly mistake). While Didion’s words are an obvious critique of the marriage scene in Las Vegas, when we hear the sobbing bride discuss how happy she is Didion is allowing her character to make the harshest critique for her: how insane must every single person involved in this scene be? The awkward stepfather, inappropriate jokes and bride so happy she can’t help but cry– all after a five minute ceremony in Las Vegas in a country with sky-rocketing divorce rates. “It was just as nice… as I hoped and dreamed it would be,” the bride tells us, soliciting nothing but an awkard sense of pity for the scene (83). It is the juxtaposition with Didion’s harsh critique with the bride’s genuine happiness that has a jarring effect on the reader.

This is evidenced earlier in the same chapter when one of the men in charge of the marriage ceremonies brags about a night when 171 couples were married in Clark County in a single night. One justice of the peace brags about the speed with which the ceremonies were performed, stating that he “could’ve married them en masse, but they’re people, not cattle. People expect more when they get married” (80). Again, how can we take the justice’s seemingly well-meaning sentiment alongside Didion’s criticism and not gawk at the justice’s pride in performing 3 minute wedding ceremonies?

Indeed, in most of American culture the wedding night is considered the greatest night of the bride’s life (an idea which itself is victim to harsh critique as well) how can we take these people seriously then their own words turn them into caricatures of Las Vegas ideals? The question Didion leaves us with is, “just how much was left out?” Her critique of Vegas ideals is clear and to the point, and it is far from taboo to speak out against these ideals. But it is also clear who she is selling out in the process, the bride overcome with happiness trivialized by her portrayal in a critique of a culture she bought into. The sobbing bride and bragging justice are far from the only ones whose dialogue lends more to Didion’s critical voice than to their own. In fact, anyone who is given a voice is often aimed to look foolish under Didion’s critical light. Ira Glass’ vegetarian origins (59), Comrade Laski’s fears of assassination (63), those partaking in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (the entrie chapter, really. Didion is not known for being merciful). When these characters are given a chance to speak, to put into their own words everything they believe about the content of Didion’s research, we only hear what Didion wants us to hear, and more often than not she wants us to hear just how foolish she thinks these people are.

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