I want to begin by pointing everyone who reads this to a piece called “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” by Caitlin Flanagan in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic. I read it before I picked up Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, reflections on the life and death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who died at the age of 39 in 2004. The Atlantic piece affected me more than Blue Nights itself did, though that has more to do with the unique emotional heft of a first-class assessment of Didion’s life and oeuvre than with any real impotence on her new memoir’s part. Didion is, I think we can all agree, an unequivocally gifted writer, but Blue Nights, unlike 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking, was ultimately unfulfilled. For one thing, it would have worked better as an extended essay in a literary magazine; as a book, it read like a collection of undeniably moving vignettes loosely strung together and curtailed quite abruptly, as if Didion had just found it too painful to keep going. Some reviews have said Blue Nights is a story about grief after the unparalleled loss of a child; some called it a meditation on aging. I still don’t know how to classify it, which maybe shouldn’t be as big a problem as it appears, but there it is.
Joan Didion is one of those people you’d envy beyond belief if it weren’t for her affliction with personal tragedy. She and John Gregory Dunne had what Flanagan calls “one of those insular, deeply interdependent, and mutually reinforcing marriages” that ended when Dunne dropped dead from cardiac arrest at their kitchen table in 2003. Right before his death, Quintana had fallen into septic shock while battling pneumonia and was in the hospital. The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the year after her husband’s death when, as her daughter recovers, gets married and relapses (eventually dying), Didion nurses what she admits is a delusional belief that her husband will reappear sometime soon, explaining away his temporary absence and able to pick up where they left off. This is her “magical thinking,” and when Quintana dies, it seems to have disappeared; Didion writes stoically of her daughter’s death, more than aware that nothing, not even the “wonderful memories!” friends speak of, can bring her back. This brutal reality gels well with Didion’s ruminations on getting older, on accepting the inevitability of her own death and on finally being truly, not just existentially, afraid of it. In Blue Nights, Didion is 75 years old, unable to engage herself physically as she could only a few years ago; reluctant to leave the house for fear of falling on the sidewalk; fending off the concerns of friends who worry about her living alone; consoling herself with the fact that Sophia Loren is also 75 and look, she’s doing fine, and looks great. The book has received mixed reactions, even among those who love Didion. My mom called it “slight,” but I think the real problem is that there’s very little of a coherent, overarching theme. Didion’s gift, after all, is making the small things count: the red soles of the shoes Quintana wore on her wedding day; the Maison du Chocolat ice cream Didion keeps in her freezer to try to gain weight; the flowers Quintana’s biological sister sent after the funeral. The details are indispensable and, given the subject matter, the scope should be there, but it’s not.
Two things have always struck me about Joan Didion’s writing, though I’ll admit I haven’t come close to reading everything she’s published. First is how matter-of-factly she treats the privileges of her own life—the house in Malibu, the fancy vacations, the hanging around on movie sets, the designer clothes. You may mutter incredulously to yourself sometimes (I rolled my eyes at the loving description of Quintana’s wedding cake “from Payard,” or the aforementioned red-soled shoes “by Christian Louboutin”) but ultimately, as my mom pointed out, Didion just assumes you’re either with her or you’re not. In other words, you have to acquiesce to the realities of the life she’s describing and not take everything she says as a latent statement on the class divide. Besides, the world she lives in is no less inherently legitimate than anybody else’s, and if anything will rob you of an I’m-one-of-the-lucky-ones sense of perspective, it’s losing your husband and your only child in the span of one year.
Second, I’m consistently amazed by Didion’s ability to harness the power of poetry to accurately and very beautifully reflect the human condition. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she “went to the literature” and pointed to Walter Savage Landor’s short poem “Rose Aylmer” as the apotheosis of how grief should feel (and about how she wished to feel about her husband). In Blue Nights, she turns to W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” less nostalgia and exaltation of the purity of a loved one than deep-seated cynicism and anger. Suffering is as old as mankind itself and universally applied, and while the litany of evidence she draws from poetry and literature still comforts her, Didion’s attitude toward death has changed. In 2003-2004, she believed magical thinking could reverse it; now, she is resigned to its mercilessness. This makes Blue Nights an altogether bleaker book, and possibly explains why it feels truncated: Didion herself hasn’t really figured out how she feels about the subjects she tackles. The Year of Magical Thinking was a book about the very personal process of grieving; Blue Nights tries to be about the “bigger picture” without ever really trying. It’s a good book, and you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by it, but the sense of unfulfilled possibility is palpable. This could have been a great book, with just a little more time.