The Books: Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf. Blue Nights by Joan Didion. (You’ll notice that not all of these books are essays. True. But I have to keep an author in one place with all of her different works.)

I had been putting off reading Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, because I knew it would be not just intense, but nearly unbearable. I was right about that. I read it during one of my weekends away at the beach, and read it practically in one sitting. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion wrote about the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Concurrent with that was the illness of her daughter, Quintana, 38 years old and recently married. Quintana was hospitalized and it was thought it was pneumonia or something along those lines, but it quickly went south. She was in a coma. She required multiple operations to her brain. She was in and out of ICUs for over a year. She died in 2005 of acute pancreaitis, and she was also brain-dead by that point. This appeared to come out of a clear blue sky. She was healthy, supposedly. She was busy. How could this happen to a young woman? There is still some mystery surrounding Quintana’s death, and Didion herself has been vague. I have no problem with Didion being vague. She is under no obligation to provide us with a coroner’s report. This is her daughter we are talking about. There has been speculation that Quintana was an alcoholic (and Didion has hinted to that as well). The Year of Magical Thinking was written in 88 days in 2004, almost a year after Didion’s husband died. Quintana was still alive when Year of Magical Thinking was written, so her death is not mentioned. After reading Year of Magical Thinking in 2005, I was haunted by the ongoing story of Quintana’s illness, and wondered what had happened. When the news broke in August of that year that Quintana passed away, it took my breath away. My God, no. No. This is AWFUL. How? Why?

Meanwhile, the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking was going to Broadway, starring Vanessa Redgrave. This was all happening at about the same time. It boggles the mind.

Blue Nights is Didion’s story of “what came after”, of the death of Quintana. It’s brutal. Her most brutal book. You wonder how she can bear it. The sentences are, for the most part, short. This is new for Didion. There are many pages where paragraphs are only made up of one of two sentences, so the pages start to look like lists. Or poems. There’s been a fracturing, a fragmentation of thought. The continuum is broken. You can see it in the way the writing looks.

The book is about the aftermath of Quintana’s death, but it also goes back in time and gives us a portrait of Quintana through the years, as a baby, a child, a young woman. Quintana emerges as an odd little human being. That has to be deliberate on Didion’s part, she who chooses every word carefully. Quintana was adopted as a newborn. Didion and her husband were open with her about that. Eventually, Quintana got in touch with her birth family, which ended up causing a lot of trauma, but that was Quintana’s journey, Didion wasn’t really involved in it. Didion is open about her failings as a parent, but is also eloquent about how it was a different time. Anyone who grew up in the 70s will understand what she is talking about. We, as children, were mainly unmonitored. Quintana had busy parents, who had busy careers, and she spent a lot of time in her childhood tagging along with them, onto movie shoots on location. She was savvy about the movie industry young. She had a bit of a fatalistic streak. I still can’t get a handle on Quintana from Blue Nights, because the memories are so fragmentary. She does not emerge as a whole person. I still can’t really discern her. Much of this is because of Didion’s guilt at some of the events in Quintana’s childhood (minor events, but which clearly have a ton of reverb). Much of this seems to be because she still feels protective of Quintana, and she actually addresses her critics in this book, something she has NEVER done before. The critics often throw the word “privilege” at Didion, that yes, her writing may be good but there is an unacknowledged sense of privilege behind it all, due to how she grew up, and her class, and people find it offensive. Well, people just love to be offended. She hesitates to share something about Quintana, because she knows what the critics will say, and so she takes a section to address the critics who felt that Quintana was also a privileged child (the worst sin, apparently). I couldn’t believe it as I was reading it. I felt very bad for Didion, that she felt the need to do that. It’s very human, and as someone who writes publicly (although certainly not at the level of Didion), I relate to the feeling of wanting to address your critics and take them down. It seems to me that as long as the critics were attacking HER, for her privileged status in society, she didn’t care. But once they went after Quintana, she could no longer be silent. Still, it was odd, to read that section and made me think that Didion had lost her equilibrium, that her boundaries had become more porous.

That’s another topic of the book, actually, and is actually more wrenching to read than the Quintana sections. It really is a book about aging. Didion is 75. She is starting to have health problems. She is starting to not be taken seriously. She is starting to bore her friends, something she writes about. She has a moment when she realizes she will never again wear these pretty high-heeled sandals she always loved. She knows that people will accuse her of vanity. But it is tragic, the way she writes about that loss. As though there should be some point in our lives when we give up pleasing little vanities, like wearing pretty high-heeled sandals. Why shouldn’t Didion be able to mourn that? She is an acute observer of everything: politics, entertainment, landscapes, real estate, bureaucracy. She is also, though, an acute observer of her own emotional and physical processes. It is hard to locate the moment when you realize you are no longer young. I’ve had a couple of them, and they are tough to bear. And even more tough to write about. (So tough that I have not done so.) Didion stares unblinkingly at that bright light and writes about it.

I found it really hard to read. The book is brutal. She goes through a box of photographs and postcards from Quintana. She writes:

I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.

There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did.

A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things”, their totems.

I relate to this.

As always, her questions are pitiless:

One of her abiding fears, I learned much later, was that John would die and there would be no one but her to take care of me.

How could she have even imagined that I would not take care of her?

I used to ask that.

Now I ask the reverse:

How could she have even imagined that I could take care of her?

She saw me as needing care myself.

She saw me as frail.

Was that her anxiety or mine?

Writing isn’t for sissies. You have to be willing to be honest, to open yourself up to attack, to tell it like it is for you. Didion has been doing that for decades. She does it again in Blue Nights. I read it as quickly as I could because, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. She goes as close to the sun as she possibly can. She does not spare herself. She spares no one. She is growing old. She has feelings about that. She is alone in her old age. Quintana is not there to be with her, to help take care of her. But that brings up so many other questions. She says at one point, baldly, “I need Quintana here with me.”

Here’s an excerpt.

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

A doctor to whom I occasionally talk suggests that I have made an inadequate adjustment to aging.

Wrong, I want to say.

In fact I have made no adjustment whatsoever to aging.

In fact I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.

I had no doubt that I would continue to wear the red suede sandals with four-inch heels that I had always preferred.

I had no doubt that I would continue to wear the gold hoop earrings on which I had always relied, the black cashmere leggings, the enameled bead.

My skin would develop flaws, fine lines, even brown spots (this, at seventy-five, was what passed for a realistic cosmetic assessment), but it would continue to look as it had always looked, basically healthy. My hair would lose its original color but color could continue to be replaced by leaving the gray around the face and twice a year letting Johanna at Bumble and Bumble highlight the rest. I would recognize that the models I encountered on those semiannual visits to the color room at Bumble and Bumble were significantly younger than I was, but since these models I encountered on my semiannual visits to the color room at Bumble and Bumble were at most sixteen or seventeen there could be no reason to interpret the difference as a personal failure. My memory would slip but whose memory does not slip. My eyesight would be more problematic than it might have been before I began seeing the world through sudden clouds of what looked like black lace and was actually blood, the residue of a series of retinal tears and detachments, but there would still be no question that I could see, read, write, navigate intersections without fear.

No question that it could not be fixed.

Whatever “it” was.

I believed absolutely in my own power to surmount the situation.

Whatever “the situation” was.

When my grandmother was seventy-five she experienced a cerebral hemorrhage, fell unconscious to the sidewalk not far from her house in Sacramento, was taken to Sutter Hospital, and died there that night. This was “the situation” for my grandmother. When my mother was seventy-five she was diagnosed with breast cancer, did two cycles of chemotherapy, could not tolerate the third or fourth, nonetheless lived until she was two weeks short of her ninety-first birthday (when she did die it was of congestive heart failure, not cancer) but was never again exactly as she had been. Things went wrong. She lost confidence. She became apprehensive in crowds. She was no longer entirely comfortable at the weddings of her grandchildren or even, in truth, at family dinners. She made mystifying, even hostile, judgments. When she came to visit me in New York for example she pronounced St. James’ Episcopal Church, the steeple and slate roof of which constitute the entire view from my living room windows, “the single ugliest church I have ever seen.” When, on her own coast and at her own suggestions, I took her to see the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, she fled to the car, pleading vertigo from the movement of the water.

I recognize now that she was feeling frail.

I recognize now that she was feeling then as I feel now.

Invisible on the street.

The target of any wheeled vehicle on the scene.

Unbalanced at the instant of stepping off a curb, sitting down or standing up, opening or closing a taxi door.

Cognitively challenged not only by simple arithmetic but by straightforward news stories, announced changes in traffic flow, the memorization of a telephone number, the seating of a dinner party.

“Estrogen actually made me feel better,” she said to me not long before she died, after several decades without it.

Well, yes. Estrogen had made her feel better.

This turns out to have been “the situation” for most of us.

And yet:

And still:

Despite all evidence:

Despite recognizing that my skin and my hair and even my cognition are all reliant on the estrogen I no longer have:

Despite recognizing that I will not again wear the red suede sandals with the four-inch heels and despite recognizing that the gold hoop earrings and the black cashmere leggings and the enameled beads no longer apply:

Despite recognizing that for a woman my age even to note such details of appearance will be construed by many as a manifestation of misplaced vanity:

Despite all that:

Nonetheless:

That being seventy-five could present as a significantly altered situation, an altogether different “it,” did not until recently occur to me.

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6 Responses to The Books: Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

  1. sheila says:

    Tough stuff, right? Ugh.

    I was almost more wracked by the aging stuff in the book than the Quintana stuff.

  2. Kate F says:

    I was also wrecked by her dawning realizations, via memory, that 1) her adoption of Quintana was far from being purely altruistic, and 2) her performance as a parent was often less than great. It takes brass balls to look at one’s own failings like that. Especially when there is no way you can “right” them.

    The stuff about the pretty high-heeled sandals hurts in a way I could not have imagined 10 years ago, or even five years ago. I remember when I started to notice younger actors being overly polite with me, kind of like the way people respond to a retarded person at a restaurant. It’s horrible.

    • sheila says:

      // I remember when I started to notice younger actors being overly polite with me //

      Ouch. I got into a really good conversation after a screening in an elevator with a young woman who had also been at the screening. We were sharing our impressions of the movie we had just seen. Then she said, and she blindsided me, “It’s so nice to hear the response of someone your age.” She did not say this bitchily. She was actually enthusiastic and kind about it. She was saying it as a young woman who clearly was just talking to an older woman in the elevator, and it was a FACT that I was the oldest person at that damn screening.

      But she took my breath away. I managed to not be mean to her, because I recognized that she felt she was actually being kind. And, in a way, she was.

      Kate – yes, I felt a lot of the Quintana childhood stuff was quite disturbing, too. Didion’s acknowledgement that everyone back then “drank too much” and how she only realized this when she went back and looked at her books and what she wrote back then and how alcohol is in almost every scene. And do you remember Quintana’s “Broken Man”? I am haunted by that. I wonder …. it seemed to real to Quintana.

      She obviously had a lot of fears and anxieties – she seemed to be born with them. Or maybe she was absorbing Didion’s obviously depressed personality … I don’t know.

      So painful, the whole thing.

      Miss you – let’s talk soon!!

  3. just1beth says:

    Her writing is so raw and pure and beautiful and hurts…hurtFULL. I read Year of Magical Thinking at a comPLETELY inappropriate time in my life. I was involved with someone I knew wasn’t right for me…a relationship that was dying. The loss she was writing about in her book was palpable- and made the impending loss of this relationship so much harder to bear. He kept begging me to stop reading “the sad book” as he called it. I want to read this, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to. Wow.

    • sheila says:

      Beth – I don’t think you and I have discussed Year of Magical Thinking! I am so interested to hear your response to it, and how it was applicable to your own life.

      Yeah, Blue Nights is tough, man. I pretty much didn’t want to hear ANY of it. Zero comfort. But important stuff, nonetheless!

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