by Joan Didion
reviewed by William Doreski
Joan Didion built her reputation on insightful journalism that muffled but acknowledged the author’s presence. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, and other collections maintain a thin line between the recognition of the journalist’s speaking voice and the journalist as subject matter. Journalism becomes an act of witness; consequently, readers trust Didion’s accounts because they seem dramatically convincing in a way that conventional print reportage does not. Didion’s descriptions of the Haight-Ashbury community of the late 1960s and the aftermath of the Manson murders have become icons of contemporary nonfiction. Her novels either mime her nonfiction to catch something of the immediacy of contemporary life, as Play It As It Lays does, or they fail to generate much drama.
Beginning with Where I Was From, her mordant account of growing up in California, Didion has taken herself as a subject. In an era of memoir, Didion seemed at first to be turning into one more aging writer trying to account for herself in a world much changed from her childhood. Then John Gregory Dunne, her husband of many years, many screenplays, quarrels, bicoastal living, and a shared adopted child, died abruptly in their living room. Among his last words was a reference to the Scotch he was drinking: “I don’t think you should mix them.” Didion’s consequent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, was the best seller of her career (so far). It could have been critiqued as self-indulgent: a man in his seventies dies of a known heart condition after a successful life, so why the fuss? Of course it was shocking to the eyewitness, but what was there to say? As it was, the reviewers missed the real story, which was the callousness of the medical response and, as the story develops, the astonishingly poor medical treatment her daughter, Quintana, was receiving in the same time frame. Quintana’s collapse with pneumonia and septic shock and the failure of a Manhattan hospital to respond quickly (she wasn’t X-rayed because it was Christmas Eve) would trigger a chain of events leading to her death. When The Year of Magical Thinking appeared in 2005, Quintana had just died, but Didion had completed the book before that final event.
Now Blue Nights, published six years later, accounts more fully for Quintana’s illness and death, with many glances back at her adoption, childhood, and young adulthood. Yet this book, like Where I Was From and The Year of Magical Thinking, is mostly about Didion herself. In reviewing Dunne’s death, Didion became fascinated with her own thought process—her magical thinking: the notion, for instance, that John’s shoes had to be kept neatly ordered in the closet so he could find them when he returned from the hospital. This denial, and her slow escape from it, is the subject of Magical Thinking. The subject of Blue Nights is her perception of herself as a mother. Didion reacted strongly when someone, reviewing Blue Nights, suggested that Quintana had had a “privileged” upbringing. Didion insisted that no, she’d had a normal childhood. But the book betrays that notion. Quintana’s life may not have seemed privileged in Didion’s circle, but compared to most American children’s lives it was very much so. Didion’s doomed insistence on the normal demonstrates her commitment to placing Quintana’s death in perspective. She can’t do it, however: Quintana’s death, unlike Dunne’s, was unexpected, abnormal, and tragic. Perhaps only Emily Dickinson’s notion of “The privilege to die” (poem 536) adequately responds to this difficulty.
Blue Nights alternates short chapters on the past and the present. Didion sketchily reviews Quintana’s past, up through the hours after her funeral when Didion walks with Jerry, Quintana’s forlorn and under-portrayed husband, through Central Park. The subtext is the hapless, sometimes rude, and always overwhelmed medical establishment that in a year and a half of misery could not grasp or effectively treat Quintana’s shifting condition. Her death by pancreatitis may or may not have been preventable, but the defensive and sometimes crude behavior of medical practitioners, as portrayed in both of Didion’s death-memoirs, would be unbelievable to anyone who hadn’t witnessed comparable behavior. But Blue Nights is also concerned with Didion’s failure as a parent. Is this failure actual, or merely perceptual? Some of the strength of the book lies in that uncertainty, exacerbated by Didion’s frustration with her own aging. On the one hand, Didion and Dunne always treated their adopted daughter with thoughtful concern. On the other hand, Didion often treated her as a grownup when it was obvious that she was a child and needed to indulge her childhood. Did Quintana mature too quickly? Or too slowly? Did her parents fail in some essential way that led to her untimely death? The questions, though unanswerable, matter.
The shift from past to present in Blue Nights occurs with rather too regular and abrupt a movement. Frequently the segue jars. The reader might wish for more development of a scene or moment, more focus, before moving backward or forward in time and space. The prose, though always serviceable, lacks the energy and rhythmic efficacy of Didion’s earlier work. Didion in a recent interview remarked that the book was hard to write because it required a new rhythm, one she had to invent for the purpose. Yet much of it reads like the opening chapter of The Year of Magical Thinking: an almost staccato collage of externalized thought-process. It feels hasty, but not careless. Before writing Blue Nights, Didion dramatized the Year of Magical Thinking. The stage version lacked the subtexts—the medical critique, especially—that gave the book much of its strength, but Vanessa Redgrave performed it as a one-woman show to considerable acclaim and financial success. Perhaps imbued with the lingering momentum of that dramatic effort, Blue Nights, with its air of improvisation, reads like a dramatic monologue rather than a conventional memoir. The implied indictment of the medical world is muted, its mourning for a daughter lost far too soon seems restrained, but as a screed against the agony of aging and regret it exudes real if unfocused power.
Published on March 18, 2013