|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Matthew Specktor on Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Positions of Privilege
October 24th, 2011
JOAN DIDION IS, AS WE KNOW, a cool customer. Long before The Year of Magical Thinking, in which a social worker calls her just that, we understood Didion to be cool in every sense of the word. Whatever was happening behind those bug-eyed sunglasses, within that frail frame, the author's relentless arrangement of information — the research, the reshuffling — kept hot feeling in line. This was true in Play It As It Lays, where the institutionalized Maria Wyeth's separation from her young daughter exists mostly between parentheses, and it was true in The Year of Magical Thinking, where the immediacy of loss is often cut with diagnostic material: W.H. Auden, observations about grief, and observations about those observations ("the question of self-pity") interceding before anyone gets wet. There is a moment in Blue Nights, in one sense The Year of Magical Thinking's logical extension but in another sense unlike any book in Didion's corpus, that seems to me specifically revealing: leaving a physical therapy session where she's been working out alongside members of the New York Yankees (!), Didion remarks upon her declining capacities. "My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether," she writes. "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."
Behind the house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood in which we lived ... a period of some four years, there was a clay tennis court, weeds growing through the cracked clay. I remember watching her weed it, kneeling on fat baby knees, the ragged stuffed animal she addressed as "Bunny Rabbit" at her side.
How does one begin to draw a critical fix on a passage like this one? It's gorgeous, of course — those balanced vowels, its clean visual focus — and almost unbearably emotional. It's also elegiac, which is hardly Didion's usual mode. The stressed telegraphy of The Year of Magical Thinking ("Life changes in the instant") is replaced by a much more reflective register here. Almost everything in Blue Nightstranspires in that past perfect tense — has been, will have been — rather than in a simple past. Didion's usual pointillism gains because of it. As ever, the point isn't confession (there are conspicuous, even notorious, aspects of her daughter's life that go entirely unmentioned), but rather the searing power of the image, the way memory, and feeling, concentrates itself in pictures that endure. Although the book is thick with anecdote, with strange, troubling episodes that present the child Quintana as both preternaturally developed — ready to pick up a hotel phone and call her mother's publicist, should there be a scheduling snafu — and emotionally distraught — tormented by an imaginary figure called "The Broken Man," or seen lying on the floor at Brentwood Park, sobbing, "Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep" — the primary presentation here is visual. Didion remembers, via her late husband's wedding toast to Quintana, their daughter walking down a hill with blonde ponytail flashing, "a towhead in that Malibu sun." She remembers Quintana kneeling at the altar, "the bright red soles of her shoes." She remembers "the stephanotis in her braid, the plumeria tattoo through her veil." All of Didion's books are strung with such imagistic recurrences, but here, for obvious reasons, the effect is redoubled. The ellipses, whether one finds them thrilling or frustrating in other books, here seem most naturally won. Or rather, most naturally suffered. In one of the book's most acute and excruciating asides, Didion notes:
"You have your wonderful memories," people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone ... Memories are what you no longer want to remember.
This involuntary quality, terrible as it is, underwrites much of Blue Nights, and neutralizes — if one is inclined to quibble with such things — the glamorousness that creeps in, the unavoidable fact (and it really is unavoidable here) that when Didion detours to describe the untimely death of a family friend, that friend happens to be Natasha Richardson, or when someone gets up to sing a lullaby at Quintana's memorial, that someone is Patti Smith. In describing a celebratory lunch to mark the day of Quintana's adoption, Didion points out that the family went to The Bistro, and were seated at a banquette usually reserved for mob fixer Sidney Korshak. "'Privilege' is a judgment," she writes.
"Privilege" is an opinion.
Well, no. Before it is any of these things, privilege is also a social position, and if Didion is wholly within bounds, and then some, to dismiss anyone who would cudgel her with the stylish particulars of her own life, that doesn't automatically overturn the fact of Blue Nights' still conspicuous glamour, its rented houses in Barbados, its recounting of Quintana's first taste of caviar, of nights at the Dorchester, the St. Regis, and the Plaza Athénée.
Sure, those are Baccarat glasses on that table over there, and Christian Louboutin shoes (the red ones, we're told) on Quintana's feet. We're welcome to them, if we want them. Since we don't actually have a choice.
For everything there is a season.
This memory gives way to a characteristic observation: "Seasons in Southern California suggest violence, but not necessarily death. Seasons in New York — the relentless dropping of the leaves, the steady darkening of the days, the blue nights themselves — suggest only death." And then Didion drops the hammer:
For my having a child there was a season. That season passed. I have not yet located the season in which I do not hear her crooning back to the eight track.
No book, of course, is beyond criticism. But I suspect it would take a much cooler customer than Joan Didion, or me, to be unstirred by such passages. And the book is full of them, as it is with pained admission ("I don't know many people who think they have succeeded as parents," begins one), as it is with elisions and missteps both deliberate and otherwise. At one point Didion cites some notes she'd made for an earlier novel,The Last Thing He Wanted, to illustrate the relative ease with which writing used to come to her, saying that it does nothing of the kind now. She chases this with an anecdote about a cabbie in New York, who claimed his ideas were borrowed by Michael Crichton, and then says, "I tell you this story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story."