book by Joan Didion
Annotation by: Lee Stoops
“…I realized I was no longer, if I had ever been, afraid to die: I was now afraid not to die…”
~ Joan Didion, Blue Nights (24)
It is not often a memoir writer writes a “sequel.” Normally, the stories of our lives, even broken into volumes, connect and intersect, but memoirs are usually artfully developed as isolated texts. In the case of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, sequential takes on a deeper meaning. I did not care for Didion’s “grief memoir” The Year of Magical Thinking. Somehow, The Year of Magical Thinking was also my first Didion experience. I felt frustrated that a woman so reputed as the standard of excellence could let me down. I chalked it up to the fact that she was writing about a loss so devastating that it truly changed her in a way that was so accelerated (not only was the manuscript written in fewer than eight months, but she wrote it immediately following her husband’s death). But, then I read her essay Goodbye To All That and realized that the rumors of Didion’s power might be true. Still, knowing the subject matter of Blue Nights being the death of her only daughter twenty months after the sudden death of Didion’s husband, I was pensive cracking the manuscript. My apprehension dissolved before I had finished the first page. The elements that readers and writers identify as “Didionesque” that I felt were either forced or absent in The Year of Magical Thinking showed up in what I can now confidently lable Didionesque fashion in Blue Nights. What was the difference? Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in a flurry right after John died (and before Quintana had passed) – maybe the proximity changed her approach? Blue Nights was published in late 2011, more than five years after Quintana’s death. Didion makes no claims in the book to the speed with which she penned it. Its construction is not in the experimental, cyclical style she claimed intentional in The Year of Magical Thinking. Instead, Blue Nights is, as far as I can tell having only read these two books and one Didion essay, exactly what people are talking about when they talk about the Didion powerhouse: the poetic, strange, and thoughtful (interesting) word order; the repetition of meaningful turns; the engagement of the reader.
When constructing sentences, writers can create art. The trick is keeping the art accessible to readers as well as keeping it from feeling contrived or troublesome. When a reader can move easily through the prose, the writer has succeeded. And, when readers can experience new sentences in a way that moves them, the writer has greatly succeeded. Rarely, in my experience, has a writer of prose managed make interesting word order without frustrating my ability to move through the language. Yet, Didion does it frequently. And, interestingly, even though the reader needs to slow down, the “moving” nature of the experience seems to exacerbate. As with her repetition (which I’ll address in a moment), Didion, it seems, expects the reader to slow down, reread her lines and consider every single word.
This too would all, when it happened, make sense.
On the other hand, I told myself, it now seemed too late, not the right time.
There comes a point, I told myself, at which a family is, for better or for worse, finished (124).
Didion employs very human elements to condition her prose. Like other powerful nonfiction writers, she speaks directly, as if communicating one-on-one (which I’ll address in the next moment) with the reader. And in her communication, she does what people do: she returns to things again and again and again. In some ways, it is to justify. In some ways, it is to exemplify. In some ways, it is to clarify. In some ways, it is to remind and connect. And, interestingly, Didion uses the same phrases, the same turns, to accomplish all of the above. With context, she repeats herself methodically, using the same words time and time again to do different things. That’s exceptional art. Here is a (in no way comprehensive) list of the turns Didion repeats throughout the text (italicized because she italicizes when she uses them (a graphical device for repetition and purpose as well)):
When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.
Hello, Quintana. I’m going to lock you here in the garage.
After I became five I never ever dreamed about him.
Now, they didn’t even care anymore.
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?
Que’ hermosa, que’ chula.
Daddy’s gone to get a rabbit skin to wrap his baby bunny in.
What if you hadn’t been home when Dr. Watson called?
Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it.
Perhaps the most Didionesque quality of Didion’s writing is her direct engagement of the reader. There are times while reading I can picture her pleading with me over a table, her skeletal hands resting atop the table, her eyes wide, wanting me to understand, to know what she is trying to get me to know. Other times, she tells the reader what to do, to think, to ask. She even stops her flow at times and says something like, “Let me repeat: (144)” and then does repeat what the reader had just read. It’s more than stylistic – it’s imploring (at times, even to the point of condescension). She wants the reader to experience her life so badly that she forsakes the rules and writes directly to the reader. At times, the text reads like a letter or a conversation rather than a memoir. It’s not about what happened to Joan Didion, or to John, or to Quintana, or to anyone else about whom Didion writes. No, it’s about what these experiences can do for a reader.
Today as I walk home from the Columbia Presbyterian sports medicine facility…I find the optimism engendered by proximity to the New York Yankees fading. In fact my physical confidence seems to be reaching a new ebb. My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether. Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.
The tone needs to be direct.
I need to talk to you directly, I need to address the subject as it were, but something stops me.
Is this another kind of neuropathy, a new frailty, am I no longer able to talk directly?
Was I ever?
Did I lose it?
Or is the subject in this case a matter I wish not to address?
When I tell you that I am afraid to get up from a folding chair in a rehearsal room on West Forty-second Street, of what am I really afraid (116-117)?
By engaging me directly, entrusting me with her artistic presentation of words and expecting me to follow her humanity through their jumble, repetition, and cycles, Didion has won me over.