Rachel Kushner was born in 1968, the year Joan Didion published "Slouching Toward Bethlehem."
Didion's collection is seen as a touchstone of that volatile year, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, violent protests of the Vietnam War, and the riot-torn Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Kushner, the author of the acclaimed novels "The Mars Room," "The Flamethrowers" and "Telex From Cuba," grew up in an environment shaped by those tumultuous times.
Like Didion, she received a West Coast upbringing, primarily Californian, and the gift of keen observational powers. Unlike Didion's youth in a traditional middle-class home, Kushner was raised by free-spirited parents who followed the hippie ethos that Didion atomized.
Primarily known for her essays and non-fiction reporting, Didion also published two edgy, innovative novels that set the stage for Kushner's further examinations of the California counterculture's broken illusions.
Now, the writers are sharing the cultural spotlight with the publication of essay collections. The two books show the affinities and polarizations of two significant writers from different West Coast generations.
The 86-year-old Didion's "Let Me Tell You What I Mean" publishes previously uncollected "Points West" columns she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, along with other material. She shared the column with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne.
While this sounds like the emptying of an aging writer's file for commercial gain, the collection has received strong reviews.
New Yorker writer Nathan Heller in a convoluted appreciation of Didion's career in the magazine's current issue, faintly praises the new collection in passing. The separate essays are a reversion from her "collage" technique in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album" of stitching together several previous essays into a new piece, he says.
He also cites the irony of Didion, who opposes sentimentality in her work, becoming the object of popular commercial branding. Didion's "Blue Nights," her memoir about her wrenching grief over Dunne's unexpected death, softened her image and broadened her popular appeal.
Kushner's "The Hard Crowd," a collection of essays from 2000 to 2020, will showcase an aspect of her work overshadowed by her novels.
The book, coming in March, is also receiving a burst of attention. The New Yorker - there it is again - published "The Hard Crowd," Kushner's riveting memoir of growing up unfettered in a rough part of San Francisco.
Its harrowing look at urban squalor at the margins of American life contrasts with the beauty of the language. It's the best piece of writing the magazine has published recently.
Harper's magazine in its current issue offers another Kushner essay, about her dangerous participation in an illegal street motorcycle race in Baja, Mexico, in her younger days. The piece veers from horror and alarm to humor and exuberance.
While Didion foreshadowed Kushner's West Coast sensibility and tolerance for extreme experience, they differ in a crucial way.
Kushner revels in direct experience, while Didion stands at the edges, an unflinching observer.