Joan Didion and the Blues

Book review: Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

…there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue…suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise… you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres…the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour – carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

The underlying question throughout Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, her poignant ode, of sorts, to her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, is whether she was a good enough mother to her. Quintana died young, age 39 in 2005, twenty months after Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly. Blue Nights felt like a companion piece, a follow-up to Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking about the year that followed Dunne’s unexpected death. That may just be my impression, these two books are completely possible to read separately, but I think their impact is stronger when considered together.

In addition to the shock of Quintana’s death, this focuses on the questions Didion asks herself and the fears she has about forgetting, part of the onset of frailties that come with advanced age. As each day passes that Quintana is no longer alive, the reminder of memories hurt more than they help. And yet she’s terrified of losing them, as memory and cognition fade, as she grows older with these two figures from her life already gone.

In the wake of losing those closest to her, Didion details some of her own frightening developing health problems, including what she learns is called “syncope”, sudden fainting, causing her to wake disoriented, bleeding and alone in her apartment, or to fear standing up from a metal chair at a rehearsal of the play based on Magical Thinking because she might fall, to avoid walks on certain days because of that fear of falling or being struck in an intersection, or the worst of all for her incredible gift, to lose the ability to write as she’s always done, to lose clarity, skill, analytical ability and her lyrical voice.

So it’s more about Didion herself than it’s about her daughter, and a mix of emotional topics and memories that swirl around in the aftermath of her death. She recounts the adoption process, how it affected Quintana throughout her life, and what demons plagued her (depression, anxiety, alcohol). But she doesn’t go into too much detail on any specific story before allowing her meditations to wander where they will, almost a more organized stream of consciousness. She’s deliberately vague. There is a decidedly uncomfortable air of privilege throughout, which is acknowledged but defended, and this was my qualm with the book overall, although I liked it for the writing.

This is a very different side of Didion than what I’ve read previously, and she intended it to be so. She’s very much the cool, aloof, almost impartial observer, capable of explaining her emotions with such rationality that we don’t feel them as heavily as she certainly must have felt them in the moment, even if she’s well over them by the time of the telling. She’s raw and vulnerable and regret-filled here, I would suppose in the way that it’s impossible not to be as a parent who loved and cared very much but still feels like a failure, still feels there was more she could’ve done.

In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.

In Didion’s case,  she sifts sentimentally through mementos and memories, questioning what she might’ve done wrong, what she might’ve missed, where she could’ve helped in areas that ultimately ended up lacking in Quintana’s life, allowing her problems to win out. It’s wrenching. But it’s also relatable – I only felt up to reading this and Year of Magical Thinking when I wanted material to help work through my own grief and regret, and there is something therapeutic in reading Didion’s experience. The complicated feelings and just the language of this kind of pain and regret can be universal, no matter the circumstances or how inaccurate your own interpretation may be.

And she’s wrong – she wasn’t an abusive or inadequate parent, she made mistakes any parent does. She’s described some of the events and circumstances around Quintana’s conditions in Magical Thinking, but here they don’t get much page space. She seems to skirt around what seems like alcoholism, and making the connection between Quintana’s death of acute pancreatitis, the odds for that are certainly upped.

I wish she’d spent more time here, but I suspect there’s an element of denial at play, and/or this crosses into territory too painful to traverse. When she does address it, it’s in her typical sly way, somewhat troublesome but sarcastic with some unfortunate truth wrapped up in it: Alcohol has its own well-known defects as a medication for depression but no one has ever suggested – ask any doctor – that it is not the most effective anti-anxiety agent yet known.

We could argue that, but I get where she’s coming from.

The last lines of this book haunt me and I think will continue to do so for a long time:

Vanish.
Pass into nothingness: the Keats line that frightened her.
Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes.
Go back into the blue.
I myself placed her ashes in the wall.
I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six.
I know what it is I am now experiencing.
I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.

Similarly haunting is the repetition of a cry Quintana made in the pain of her mental illness and addiction, “Let me just be in the ground. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.” These words haunted Didion, she repeats them in these pages heartbreakingly often. I’ve never read something like this, equal parts grief, inconsolable regret, memory, loss, and reckoning with your own mortality — heavy to be sure but somehow not oppressive. It’s strange to see Didion, who’s famously icy, lay her vulnerability bare like this, but it’s all the more meaningful. Some exquisite writing, some uncomfortable privilege, a lot to think about. 3.5/5

Blue Nights
by Joan Didion
published 2011

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7 thoughts on “Joan Didion and the Blues

    1. It took me a really long time to get into her work, actually! I’d read a novel and didn’t think much of it so didn’t seek out anything else. I think her nonfiction is her strong suit but it’s also hit or miss for me – some things I love, others don’t strike me so much. This was a pretty good one, and I think her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a good place to start with her.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “Year of Magical Thinking” is the only book I’ve read by Didion — I was awed by the level of writing but found it very hard to take. Your very useful and good review convinces me that this one would be even more awesome, but even more emotionally draining and upsetting.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, that one was hard to take and your impression of this one is right – it was even more so, from my feeling at least. But sometimes her writing is just so extraordinary and moving. Also draining, like you say – I definitely had to wait until I was in the right mindset to read this and Magical Thinking.

      Like

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