Blue Nights Joan Didion
Blue Nights Joan Didion
“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” Joan Didion writes in her most recent offering, Blue Nights.
Blue Nights is the second book of Didion’s recording and consideration of a recent difficult period in her life. Readers of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, will recall that in December 2003 Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo fell ill and was placed on life support. By January, Didion’s husband of more than 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, had died of a heart attack after returning from a hospital visit to Quintana.
Quintana pulled through that illness but 20 months later, on Aug. 26, 2005 (after four further medical emergencies), she died, leaving Didion bereft of her immediate family.
Blue Nights is a parallel elaboration rather than a sequel to A Year of Magical Thinking.
It takes up Quintana’s story, but also zigzags back and reprises territory covered in The Year of Magical Thinking. Where The Year of Magical Thinking was immediate, certain and assured, Blue Nights unrolls and wonders. It situates itself within the longer-term ache and gape of grief and the questioning that creeps in alongside that. Didion ponders the accumulation that is living with profound grief. She asks a lot of questions.
Blue Nights is described by the publisher as a memoir about losing a daughter, but it’s threaded with restraint and an authorial reluctance to reach into the material. Didion writes around the more uncomfortable stuff.
What Didion is desperately trying to resolve is her daughter’s suffering — and the fact her daughter died before she did — and how unprepared she or any of us are for such a thing. She sieves through moments of her life, pulling them apart and riddling them with questions to incredible effect.
Yet throughout the book, Didion fences Quintana out of it, and so continues to examine her from a perplexing distance.
Quintana Roo was adopted by Didion and her husband on March 3, 1966 when they received a call from an obstetrician asking them if they wanted the baby. What followed was a terrific amount of guilt on Didion’s part for this good fortune — and even more anxiety about Quintana’s welfare and experience in the world.
Both women were united in a mutual fear of not being able to care for the other. “Only later did I see I had been raising her as a doll,” Didion writes. This could certainly have been stifling to her daughter and their relationship — but at the same time, it reflected a prescient instinct that her daughter was, as it turned out, very fragile.
From here the trail dries up.
We know Quintana suffered from anxiety. We know she was depressed. We know she drank too much. We’re told she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
But we’re told about borderline personality disorder in the third person, offered only a DSM-type definition of “patients” with it. Where is Quintana in all this? Where are the daily peculiarities that distressed her and followed her into adulthood?
We are immersed instead in very particular details of places, occasions, events and moments — with a few anecdotes — that seem to trigger questions. It’s rather like a beautiful court transcript with no actual evidence.
We learn plenty about the weather, the flowers and what Quintana wore — a cashmere turtle neck sweater bought in London, a suede jacket, a black wool challis dress bought at Bendels on W. 57th Street — but only occasionally do we hear her speak.
It’s clear that Quintana was a much-loved and complicated human being, but we are given such insufficient information about her actual complexities that it’s difficult to understand why, or specifically how, if at all, Didion was implicated in them.
If anything, Didion seems less than curious, or even resigned, about those complexities, while beating herself up with laments such as, “She could have no idea how much we needed her,” “How could we have so misunderstood one another?” and “Was I the problem? Or was I always the problem?”
What becomes apparent while reading Blue Nights is that Didion’s comfortable writing life (hotels, cabs, airports, restaurants, hushed respect towards her) may have given us great literature, but it has isolated her from the grinding reality that driving a bus, stacking shelves or working in a factory might afford.
One suspects Quintana, by virtue of her cycles of despair and discombobulation, the repetition and revisiting, experienced more of this grind but could find no place to anchor herself. She didn’t fit — and she continues not to fit in this book. Perhaps the only disservice Didion did to her was to expect that she should fit.
Moving away from Quintana, the book solidifies with Didion’s honest recording of her own faltering, her health, her aging fragility her and isolation.
I think what’s quite marvellous about Blue Nights is Didion’s willingness to start discussions about mortality, adoption and mental illness.
Where we take it is up to us. Collectively, we need to understand a great deal more about all three and Blue Nights offers a departure point.
REVIEW BY ANAKANA SCHOFIELD
Vancouver Sun Dec. 16, 2011
Anakana Schofield’s novel Malarky will be published in April by Biblioasis.