"Let me try again to talk to you directly." This is a pivotal line from Blue Nights — and a terrifically blunt expression of intention from its author, Joan Didion.
For most of her career, Didion's voice has been a distinct one, pitched between hot topics (the '60s, political upheavals, existential crises) and cool detachment. It's not that she lacks passion; it's just that her articulation of this passion is rather ... dispassionate. In Blue Nights, she is driven toward something more open, raw, immediate — which is entirely appropriate given her subject: the sad, protracted dying and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, at the age of 39.
Actually, this is the second time Didion has engaged in intense emotional strip-mining. She took a similar approach in her previous book, 2005's celebrated The Year of Magical Thinking. Its focus was the sudden passing — at the dinner table — of her husband and sometime writing partner, John Gregory Dunne.
In fact, Blue Nights might have been motivated by some unfinished business from that best-seller. Her daughter's lingering illness played a major role in Magical Thinking, although her eventual death, from acute pancreatitis, was never mentioned — and Didion took some criticism for the omission.
Here, Didion pays moving homage to her daughter, particularly in the book's first third. She builds a portrait of Quintana out of privileged moments: rich Proustian details (the shaking out of wet leis on a church lawn before Quintana's wedding) and intimate maternal memories. Searching though photographs of Quintana, she heartbreakingly comments, "The clothes of course were familiar. I had for a while seen them every day, washed them, hung them out to blow in the wind on the clothesline outside my office window."
Didion gives us a palpable sense of the emptiness left behind, at one point raging, "Memories are what you no longer want to remember." The assertion might not stand as a universal truth, but this is Didion aggrieved, letting her bitterness show.
Though always tethered to Quintana, the book is also about the 76-year-old Didion's aging process and, to a great degree, her writer's brain. Throughout the book, she struggles intensely with herself and what she perceives to be her dimming creative strength. "When we lose that sense of the possible, we lose it fast," she says at one point. "What if I never again locate the words that work?" These are chilling realizations for a writer. Yet, for all she talks about her failing power, her abilities seem gloriously intact. And it's naive not to suspect this is exactly the trap she sets for us.
Didion is so smart — always one step ahead of us — and she's such a forceful and polished stylist that you sometimes feel as if she's micro-managing your every response. Consider the times she breaks the literary equivalent of the fourth wall, suddenly asserting that she knows what we — the readers — are thinking. (She's particularly defensive about any suspicion of "privilege" regarding Quintana's semi-glittery Hollywood upbringing.) Her efforts at control can seem cold. Even her insistence on directness itself has something of a distancing effect. And yet, you come to empathize with her need to be in charge — at least on the page.
Perhaps that is a writer's only real consolation when facing essential loss. There is an aching desperation in this book's need to reach some sort of shattering revelation about mortality. And this determination — this ferocity — more than compensates for Didion's sometimes suffocating self-consciousness. Ultimately, Blue Nights leaves us wrecked.