There are some writers who enter our consciousness at just the right time and remain firmly lodged there for life, affecting, like a penny in a drinking fountain, the taste of everything that comes after. I am speaking primarily of the books one reads between about the ages of 17 and 20. Whether classics or assigned texts or whatever now vaguely embarrassing tome happened to be trendy the summer you learned to drive, for better or for worse, they tend to be formative. Everyone, I like to believe, has those books.
As it happens, Joan Didion wrote a great many of mine. Many people have first-Didion stories, and I won't bore you with mine — an Iowa winter, "The White Album," age 19 — but when I read her for the first time, I was hooked. Didion does things with nonfiction that do not seem like they should be possible. Her essays, collected in volumes including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Political Fictions, and After Henry, and her book-length works Salvador, Miami, and Where I Was From remain thrilling for their ambition, their precision, and their utter lack of anything that might be construed as nostalgia or sentimentality. Didion is never soft. When you read Didion for a while, you develop an ear for her pet images and tropes, the particulars she refers to again and again. There are always people making drinks in Didion's nonfiction, and members of the media asking idiotic questions, and everything proceeds in a sort of miasma of dread. There are lots of shift dresses in Didion's nonfiction, too, except she always refers to them as "shifts," tout court. Someone wears a white shift, someone else wears a cotton shift, Linda Kasabian wanted to wear "a long white homespun shift" to testify at the Manson trial. When Roman Polanski spills a glass of red wine on Didion's wedding dress in the titular essay in The White Album, it's never specified what kind of dress it was, but in my imagination I know it was a shift.
Didion's memoir Blue Nights, released this week, covers the period of her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne's prolonged hospitalization and eventual death. Blue Nights is a pendant book to 2005's The Year Of Magical Thinking, in which Didion narrated her grief following the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Just before Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack at the dinner table, Quintana had contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. By the end of Magical Thinking, it seems like Quintana is recovering — but her condition suddenly worsened and she died just after Didion turned in her manuscript. Asked whether she would revise the book to reflect that event, Didion told the New York Times simply, "It's finished."
That's where Blue Nights takes up. The memoir is less about Didion's grieving for Quintana than it is her ongoing tortured interrogation of the actions she took and didn't take while she was alive. "I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents," the author notes, with typical terseness.
Didion delves into Quintana's childhood, and judges her parenting harshly. In the present day, Didion meditates on loss and aging, relates what it was like when Vanessa Redgrave played her in the stage adaptation of Magical Thinking, confronts the "In Case Of Emergency, Please Call" box on medical forms, and — fascinatingly, if too occasionally for my tastes — ruminates on writing itself.
Didion writes at one point about a house she once lived in when Quintana was an infant:
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.
The thing is, as any dedicated reader of Didion will recognize, we've been to this tennis court before. We first visited this clay tennis court and the Franklin Avenue house to which it was at the time attached in 1979, when Didion published probably her best-known essay, "The White Album," the second section of which begins:
IN THE YEARS I am talking about I was living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described by one of my acquaintances as a "senseless-killing neighborhood." This house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years that I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely.
We already knew, as of "The White Album," that the house across the street had been built for one of the Talmadge sisters, we knew that the house next door was owned by Synanon, we knew that the place around the corner — the former Canadian consulate — was in 1968 for rent, all 28, unfurnished rooms of it, only on a month-to-month lease. We knew that this gave the neighborhood a peculiar character; that therapy groups and rock bands and panel vans were Franklin Avenue's key demographics. Of Didion's house, the house on Franklin Avenue, we knew it had hardwood floors and many bedrooms and a jasmine vine growing on the verandah. We knew it had big French windows and that Didion, at least once, after throwing a party that Janis Joplin had attended, opened all of them before falling asleep on the couch. We knew all this because she told us so in 1979.
When the Franklin Avenue house first entered Didion's canon, it had a specific and beautiful and clear function within an essay. The house, in Didion's telling, was emblematic of all the anomie and creeping dread of the late 1960s that "The White Album" so exquisitely explores. Franklin Avenue already has a meaning. To what literary end, then, we must ask, is this late revisitation? To be blunt: of what legitimate aesthetic interest is the addition, to this familiar footage, of the fat baby knees and the parental guilt? Blue Nights does not offer a reconsideration of that old material — "Franklin Avenue" and the image of the tennis court gone to seed still seem like a stand-in for the heedlessness and instability of the times. It's more like an echo. Didion is not normally a sentimental writer, and perhaps it is because I have read so much of her that I am moved to an unsentimental reading here: frankly, the most interesting thing about her latter-day take on Franklin Avenue is not the toy bunny or the little girl she has seen fit to paint into the scene she set so long ago, but the fact that Didion now says "a period of some four years," and not "the five years that I lived there." That is a potentially interesting incongruity.
There are many other passages in Blue Nights that recycle old material. There's the matter of an autograph obtained in Tucson in 1971, an anecdote which Didion first told in her essay "In Hollywood," also published in the book The White Album:
My husband and I fly to Tucson with our daughter for a few days of meetings on a script with a producer on location. We go out to dinner in Tucson: the sitter tells me that she has obtained, for her crippled son, an autographed picture of Paul Newman. I ask how old her son is. ‘Thirty-four,' she says.
Retold in Blue Nights, we get the same anecdote, with the addition of the movie's title (so it was The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean that they were working on, whose Wikipedia page informs me was Victoria Principal's first film — fascinating) and an insight into Quintana's perspective:
A crippled son was mentioned. Quintana got the autograph, delivered it to the babysitter, then burst into tears. It was never clear to me whether she was crying about the crippled son or about feeling played by the babysitter.
One pictures Didion, alone, still turning over in her mind the social interactions of a generation ago, like a hand worries a coin in a pants pocket. The edits she makes to the stories at this late stage are mainly biographical: if you have read the resolutely outward-focused nonfiction works like Miami or Political Fictions, or that line about her and John Gregory Dunne "not getting a divorce" from the essay "In The Islands," and ever wondered what was going on behind and around all that, in "real life," then Blue Nights may have some answers. (What was going on was that Didion was making a lot of school lunches. Also, later, Quintana's closed adoption blew wide open when her birth family hired a private investigator to find her.) Didion has always been extremely private in her nonfiction — her first foray into the memoir, Where I Was From, contains long passages about California's settlement history, agriculture, water, and her own family's genealogy, almost as if Didion could only bear to turn her lens on herself after every other possible topic had been probed and exhausted — so the focus of Blue Nights may hold some allure for longtime readers. But if your interest in Didion is more literary and less based in personality, Blue Nights may prove too elliptical and meandering to be satisfying. It might not be worth the trip back to Franklin Avenue.
The story that Didion seems to want to tell in Blue Nights is that of her daughter's troubled life and untimely death, and what Didion perceives to be her maternal failures — with lengthy sidelong journeys into the death of Natasha Richardson, a family friend, a defensive-sounding discourse on the concept of privilege, conversations with cabbies, and bowls of matzo-ball soup eaten at the Hotel Edison in New York. But while on a personal level, what happened to Quintana Roo Dunne is a manifest tragedy, Didion offers little literary reason for the reader to find these events compelling. She instead often seems to be, as she remarks in a late chapter, merely telling stories in order to prove that she still can. (Her feared imminent loss of the ability to write, a theme she touches on periodically, briefly, and always hauntingly, is to my mind the book's most compelling narrative strand.) I do not mean to discount the magnitude of Didion's personal grief. I am just not certain that her telling of it matters in the ways she thinks it does.
Didion has for her entire career been a precise and merciless essayist, capable of skewering hippies and JayCees and Newt Gingrich alike. To read "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is to get the feeling that Didion somehow knew in her heart even then that these hapless kids were going to grow up and vote for Reagan. The persona Didion has spent a lifetime constructing is that of the "small and neurotically insignificant" author, seemingly a little out of her depth, a little floundering, who — it becomes apparent near the essay's end — has actually known exactly what is going on all along, and she will now lay it out for you in heart-breaking, stone-cold detail. Here is the 5-year-old on LSD. Here is why what you think about Hollywood is wrong. Here is the bride in her illusion veil. The floundering is an act. Didion always has the answers.
I have read Didion essays and disagreed with her conclusions, occasionally strongly — her piece on the Central Park Jogger rape case, anthologized in After Henry, comes to mind — but I have never once questioned her hold on her material or her opinion of her subjects' literary value. But in Blue Nights, as in The Year Of Magical Thinking before it, readers are made witness to the spectacle of a Didion whose material is starting to slip away from her grasp. The author is using all the techniques that have come through for her in the past — the lists, the cold passive voice, the sardonic quotations from found texts, the syntactically marvelous sentences with all their nested clauses — but the "there" is not quite there. She can give no answers where death is concerned. Who could? The spectacle of Didion mustering all the old powers against a subject they cannot overcome is ultimately heartbreaking. Though not, perhaps, in the way Didion intended.