Friday, December 9, 2011

Blue Nights

Through no kind of strategy or planning, it seems I have read more memoirs and biographies in the last month or so than in the rest of the year combined. I could probably dig into this and find some sort of psychological reason (you can always find one if you look), but I would prefer to chalk it up to my to-read pile having its own logical sieve (the tiger posts, for example). Including one book that I have not yet written about, in the last month I have had the great privilege to spend time with some extraordinarily different women – first, Mrs. Delany and Molly Peacock in The Paper Garden, then writer Therese Kishkan in her memoir Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and capping it all off, Joan Didion in Blue Nights, her follow-up to The Year of Magical Thinking.

Where The Year of Magical Thinking focused on the death of Didion's husband John Gregory Dunne and the devastating illness of their adult daughter Quintana Roo. Shortly before that book was published, Quintana died. Blue Nights is Didion's lyrical attempt to deal with her daughter's death – and to some degree her life – and also with her own mortality and aging in the face of her family's death. If readers found Didion cold or clinical in A Year of Magical Thinking, mere pages into Blue Nights you can tell that this is a different Didion: her defences are down, her own fragility is realized, and her world is filled with memories of the people she thought she would have forever. To say this book is devastating does not come close to grasping its emotional impact, but it also implies that there are no moments of joy, which would be unfair.

Didion's thoughts are in free-form in Blue Nights, and rather than following a linear progression or a clear timeline, her prose floats around as memories link to present day events, which in turn remind her of other things. Throughout the book are echoes of Quintana's voice – snippets of things she said as a little girl or a teenager, or a grown woman, pieces of the daughter Didion lost. Like when someone dies, don't dwell on itAfter I became five I never ever dreamed about him. That line perhaps more than any other seems to haunt Didion. After I became five, she marvels, what was Quintana saying there? Became five. Other, similar, lines seem to resurface in her memories – Quintata organizing a box into categories of things that included sundries and little toys; Quitana's anxiety over being adopted; Quintana singing along to The Mamas and the Papas; Quintana's wedding. And, layered over these memories of her daughter are snapshots of Didion's own life – falling after a party and waking up injured and barely able to get help; waking up with what seemed like a rash and ended up being shingles. Her husband and her daughter are dead, and she is alone and suddenly frail. What kind of world is this?

Despite her grief – which, it must be said, is aesthetically beautiful on the page – Didion has not given up. Case in point: this book. Blue Nights is, but virtue of its existence, a book about overcoming these things, about working through them as a way to continue moving forward. After her husband's death, Didion says, The Year of Magical Thinking was turned into a one-woman play. She worked because keeping busy was her way of healing (if one can really heal from such a loss). Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it. Didion dwelled, something she's sure Quintana would not have approved of, and maybe it helped. In Blue Nights, though, she dwells on more than just her daughter – she dwells on herself. There are times when Didion is so honest it is almost painful to read, as if you just know she would have trouble telling these truths to your face, but somehow words on a page makes it a touch easier; as if releasing these thoughts allows her to stop dwelling.

For all its emotional weight, Blue Nights is a very quick read. Didion's writing is surprisingly airy, and her various refrains provide a kind of rhythm to the patterns of her grief and thoughts on aging. Although this is a memoir entirely about its author, Didion also manages to leave space for her readers to find their own lives and memories in her narrative, as if grief is a universalizing force and even if you haven't experienced losses like hers, you can imagine them and grieve and find solace and light with her. The blue nights of the title are the way Didion perceives the light of early summer evenings – a brief but annual event that promises the coming of summer and warmth. She missed the blue nights the year Quintana died because she was in the hospital, but the promise of that strange and beautiful light, so filled with promise, will return.

Blue Nights
by Joan Didion
First published 2011 (cover image shown from Alfred A. Knopf edition)

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