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November 1, 2011

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

“When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children,” writes Joan Didion in her new book Blue Nights. And in fact, when Didion is talking about any one thing in this book, she is usually talking about something else, a point which she spends much of the book considering– her struggles of late as a writer to be direct, to get to the point. In particularly in regards to her daughter Quintana, and when Joan Didion is talking about Quintana, she can’t avoid talking about mortality, about the “death of promise”; Quintana died in 2005 at the age of 39, not long after her father’s sudden death one evening at the dinner table (the year after which Didion chronicled in her previous memoir).

When Didion is talking about Quintana, she’s not only talking about her daughter’s mortality, but about her own. The years since her daughter’s death have brought about a general ill-health, a growing frailty that she has struggled to address with various health professionals with very little success. And then it occurs to her– she is 75 years old. Perhaps this alone is the problem, and there is no “fix”. And this has never occurred to her before, that she would eventually (or quite suddenly) get old. “Time passes… Could it be that I never believed it?”

This from a woman whose writing has always been drenched in nostalgia, who from the time she picked up a pen has been eulogizing the way we don’t live anymore and the “all that” she’d said good-bye to. That Joan Didion has never believed time to pass is impossible to consider, except that maybe she never considered herself passing along with it.

“The common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I,'” wrote Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook,” from her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, except now she’s 75 and that common denominator seems less a sure foundation. In the same essay, she’d also written, “Remember what it was to be me. That was always the point.” And now more than 40 years later, she doesn’t want to remember anymore.

She writes that well-meaning friends try to assure her through her loss: “You have your memories”. She writes that for many years, she fetishized these memories, saving everything– drawers and cupboards stuffed, mementos pinned to the walls– believing that they would help keep people “fully present”. And when she most important people in her life are lost, she’s left with “detritus of this misplaced belief.” She writes that remembering the past only reminds her of how much she failed to appreciate what she had in the first place.

And when she writes about failing to appreciate what she had, she’s writing about Quintana. She’s writing about her own relationship to her daughter (who happened to be adopted), which is similar to any mother’s relationships to her child, adopted or otherwise. Contemplating that newborn bundle: “What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?… what if I fail to love this baby?”

Except that Quintana doesn’t just “happen to be adopted”, and Didion has realized that failing to acknowledge this was a significant failing of her own as a mother. That Quintana’s mental health problems (which are referred to obliquely; this is no expose) could have been rooted in her own fears of abandonment. That what the “choice narrative” so favoured towards 1960s adoptees left unsaid was the underside of adoptive parents’ choosing, why a child was up for choosing in the first place. And Didion notes that she could never treat this underside, that she chose to avoid it because to highlight her daughter’s origins would be to expose her own terrible fear– that this miraculous child who’d been placed in her arms would somehow be stolen away from her. To acknowledge Quintana’s fear of abandonment, to acknowledge the fact of Quintana herself, would have been to clarify her own feelings and fears about her daughter, which Didion could never bring herself to do.

Except that she’s lost her now, a worst fear realized, and her daughter’s death has served to bring her own death closer. And without her daughter to survive her, when she dies she will “Pass into nothingness,” a phrase from Keats’ she discovers in one of Quintana’s high school exercise books. A phrase that had resonated with the teenaged depressive Quintana, another side of her that Didion had never allowed herself to understand. A side that she’s coming to understand now as she contemplates the end of her own life, and how much her daughter’s sense of mortality and her actual mortality have illuminated her own.

She finds it hard to be direct now. She offers a passage from her novel The Last Thing He Wanted to show the way her prose used to come so easily, that she wrote it like the rhythm it was. But she can’t do that now. She can’t find the right words, she can’t get to the point, she keeps falling, and forgetting, and getting frailer all the time. The point is slipping farther away. But it’s not that she is afraid to die. She writes that she’s getting so she’s afraid not to die, but it’s not that, and it’s not the writing either.

She writes, “The fear is for what is still to be lost,” and she’s writing about her memories of her daughter. “How could I not still need that child with me?” She writes, “there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

2 thoughts on “Blue Nights by Joan Didion”

  1. deanna says:

    Oh Kerry, what a beautiful review — from what sounds to be a particularly poignant book that I honestly can’t wait to read. It’s amazing how when considering mortality up until the point where we had the RRBB, it was always in conjunction with disease, and now it’s with the thought of life, pure life, and the freedom that comes with it. How life, like prose, comes so easily to those of us with a gift for it, until it just doesn’t any longer, if that makes ANY sense. xoxoxoxo

  2. This was lovely. Thanks for it.

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