WHEN I BEGAN SERIOUSLY READING Joan Didion, in my early twenties, my response was less "this is amazing" than "this is allowed?" As is the case with many young writers, early encounters with Didion felt to me like a revelation, a shocking and delightful window into what it meant to forge an intimacy with one's readers while remaining duly mysterious. You can do it like this, the pages seemed to say. "This" meant the jagged, labyrinthine sentences, the unashamed brandishing of personal demons, the perennial list making. Moreover, that such stylings were permissible, that the work appeared in the most prestigious places and had made its author not only a success but an outright star, felt like a victory not just for words but for sound. To me, reading Didion's prose has always been an aural experience as much as a literary one, as much about rhythm and intonation as whatever she's talking (or in many cases not talking) about. It's been about those long, earth-orbiting sentences that are almost always followed by short, decisive ones that let you catch your breath. It's also about wondering, for those of us too young to know, what a cotton shift is. Or how she wants us to pronounce "detritus."
Blue Nights, like 2005's The Year of Magical Thinking — and in some ways like the 2003 essay collection Where I Was From — has the hallmarks of relatively recent vintage Didion. That is to say, it's sparer and more elliptical than the 1970s-era works — Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Goodbye To All That — that are often described as seminal and that have had generations of young writers copying her style by eschewing commas and throwing in references to cigarettes or prescription opioids wherever possible. An almost incomprehensibly tragic coda to The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicled the sudden death in 2003 of the author's husband, John Gregory Dunne, Blue Nights takes on the demise of her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who died 18 months later.
As is well known to readers who care not just about the prose but also the personal life of Joan Didion — and that could plausibly constitute most of them — reports of Quintana's illness had been circulating since around the time Dunne's death was announced. It had been after a visit to the hospital, where Quintana was unconscious in an intensive care unit with pneumonia and septic shock, that Dunne had sat down at the dinner table and collapsed, a moment Didion has boiled down to: "John was talking, then he wasn't." The Year of Magical Thinking was published less than two months after Quintana's death, after many hospitalizations (from acute pancreatitis), and as a result seemed in some ways like a book whose story had been robbed at the last minute of any possibility of closure. It was, in other words, a widow's story that had suddenly been thrown off course into a story of child loss, one that clearly required its own book in due time. "I'm going through this process twice now," Didion said in an interview inThe Guardian in 2005. "It's a different process, because the relationship to a child is at once more fundamental and less intimate."
The same might be said of Blue Nights. As fundamental as the relationship must surely be between author and material — which is to say the rel...