Positions of Privilege
By Matthew SpecktorOctober 24, 2011
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
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."
"The correct stance?" It seems an odd thing to be fretting about in the midst of a meditation on aging and grief, but, in a way, Didion's entire body of work has been about this positioning: "the attitude, the tone." These things have always been primary in Didion — the words themselves have never been permitted to violate or distress the stance too much — which is frankly why a good portion of it doesn't interest me much. It's also why Blue Nights is so forceful. On the one hand, her cognitive confidence — or at least her cognitive capacity — is as powerful as it ever was. The book's surpassing lucidity (its title, seemingly generic, is in fact perfectly chosen, referring as it does to a specific set of latitudinal conditions in which "the actual light ... becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres") owes much to the tension between that cognitive strength and the cracking, at last, of the writer's attitudes. Neither nakedly confessional nor coldly composed, Blue Nights is startling in its effect, and remarkable even within the context of Didion's impressive shelf. (Just because the work doesn't interest me doesn't mean I haven't read a lot of it, or that I don't think it's any good.) Blue Nights is heartbreaking, in a word, and if it isn't among her most exacting performances — in fact it contains a few moments of unusual clumsiness — it may yet be among her finest.
A word here about my own "stance," since it bears. During the years Didion lived in the house she refers to frequently herein as "Brentwood Place," my parents shared an employee with the Didion-Dunnes. The same woman who was folding Quintana's Westlake sweatshirts was also confronting the funky horror of my adolescent bedroom on a daily basis ("'Ordinary' childhoods in Los Angeles very often involve someone speaking Spanish," Didion notes, in a not-too-persuasive pushback against the notion that Quintana's upbringing was "privileged"), and, while I don't actually remember meeting Quintana, while my family's acquaintance with the residents of Brentwood Place was at the time narrow at best, my reading of Blue Nights may be deformed by this fact. Lightly, perhaps. It's possible my own nostalgias, and my own privilege, may be a lens that draws this book's landscape and subject into a more poignant focus than it truly possesses.
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.
Daddy's gone to get a rabbit skin to wrap his baby bunny in.
In a few weeks she will have been dead five years.
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.
"Privilege" is an accusation.
"Privilege" remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.
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.
And yet. Like James Salter's similarly reticent, similarly glamorous and remarkable Burning the Days (similar in other ways too: like Didion, Salter lost a young adult daughter, which fact is only mentioned in passing in his book), Blue Nights turns this aristocratic aspect to account. "It is horrible to see oneself die without children. Napoleon Bonaparte said that," Didion writes. "What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripides said that." We're on exalted ground here, and Didion knows it. Napoleon Bonaparte wasn't exactly underprivileged himself, and the very core of Blue Nights seems to reside in the fact that we all believe ourselves privileged — privileged never to die, perhaps, or privileged not to suffer the eviscerating losses the author of this book has suffered. To this, Didion has a very particular address:
Yes, agreed, a banality, of course time passes.
Then why do I say it, why have I already said it more than once?
Could it be that I heard it more this way: Time passes, but not so aggressively that anyone notices? Or even: Time passes, but not for me?
Could it be that I did not figure in ... the irreversible changes in mind and body ... The way in which your awareness of this passing time — this permanent slowness, this vanishing resilience — multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life?
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.
This leveling aspect is perhaps Blue Nights' best quality — if "best" is the right word, if "best" doesn't in fact restore us to the same false position of privilege, the one in which we calculate this book's coordinates instead of succumbing to its ruthless and plain sorrows. Instead of Auden (or in addition to Auden: We're told Quintana didn't care for "Funeral Blues," the poem quoted both here and in The Year of Magical Thinking), we get Ecclesiastes via The Byrds:
For everything there is a season.
I think first of Quintana Roo sitting on the bare hardwood floors of the house on Franklin Avenue, and the waxed terra-cotta tiles of the house in Malibu listening to The Byrds on eight-track.
The Byrds and The Mamas and the Papas, "Do You Wanna Dance?"
"I wanna dance," she would croon back to the eight-track.
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.
I still hear her crooning back to the eight-track.
"I wanna dance."
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."
I don't believe in this frailty, quite. Whether that's the issue of my own denial, or, I suspect, of Blue Nights' remarkably tensile strength, I don't know. But this book has as much precision as any and every other book in Didion's catalog, and an equal artfulness, too. It's hard to believe the person who wrote it could, in the most meaningful sense, be slipping. Then again, my mother, who shared that employee with Didion throughout the 1980s, and whom I may occasionally have heard talking with the author on the telephone, died in 2008. My dad, whose shirts were pressed by the same hand that did Quintana's, who frequented the same restaurants and probably borrowed Sidney Korshak's booth at The Bistro, himself, will someday follow — even if I don't believe it.
So will I. And so will you.
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