208 pp., 25.8
I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.
This is a strange, double-edged declaration from a memoirist—after all, without what was and what got broken, there is no story to tell. But Joan Didion has never been one to make things easy. Blue Nights is a sequel to her National Book Award-winning Year of Magical Thinking, which was less a detached remembrance and more an artifact of Didion's grief after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a heart attack and died in 2003. Dunne and Didion's adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, was comatose in the hospital at the time, mere months after her own wedding, and during Didion's promotion tour for the book, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis—a story she recounts in painful detail in Blue Nights.
So while Year of Magical Thinking was the book of Dunne, Blue Nights is the book of Quintana. In it, Didion circles around her memories of Quintana's homecoming, her precocious fears as a child (the child Quintana once coolly informed her parents when they returned home from a social outing, "I just noticed I have cancer"—it was chicken pox), her struggles with depression and anxiety and alcoholism, "her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes." Tormented by memories of her own failures, Didion wonders if her mothering deficiencies were at the heart of Quintana's problems.
Certainly Blue Nights is also the book of Didion herself. In the midst of her memories of Quintana, or of other departed friends and family, of tragedy and loss, Didion grapples with her own aging and changing. She has undergone surgery for unnamed neurological problems, and now she is afraid that her writing abilities may be slipping away:
How comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it …
What if the problem is now cognitive?
What if the absence of style that I welcomed at one point—the directness that I encouraged, even cultivated—what if this absence of style has now taken on a pernicious life of its own?
What if my new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself—
What if this new inability is systemic?
What if I can never again locate the words that work?
What is perhaps most significant about Blue Nights is that this anxiety, though the particulars change, is not unfamiliar ground for its author. She'll be 77 next month and has been publishing for nearly fifty years, but Didion's writing has always been marked by nostalgia, anxiety, and outright fear—sometimes longing for time gone by, often yearning for a place, frequently seeking or half-remembering something that may never have even existed, a golden age or a myth (like the conception of California that has haunted her).
Her characters, real or fictional, have uniformly lost their paradise, or are about to, whether they are hippies or Hollywood royalty. Didion herself has lost her paradise frequently—one of her earliest and most famous essays, "Goodbye to All That," has her arriving in New York City as an idealistic young woman and leaving as a jaded mess—and with both Dunne and Quintana gone, she seems to have permanently lost hope. But since the 1960s and '70s, when she was exploring the upheaving social landscape, Didion has been the best secular voice of Sehnsucht, which C.S. Lewis thought of as the "inconsolable longing" in our hearts—for what, we know not. Often sparked by glimpses of the beautiful (like Didion's California sunsets), we somehow, inexplicably, feel our earthliness as incomplete. Yet, as Lewis says in The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
The memoir, by nature, is a form in which the writer mines her own experience, recaptures a single heart's longings, and then shapes them into a narrative that will resonate with the reader as well. And so memoir is often marked by Sehnsucht. Memoirs remember what has passed and long for a chance to revisit, or even attempt to redeem, what is lost. For the memoirist of faith, or the one who wants to believe, this longing finds its culmination in the hope of a world to come. But the memoirist who can or will not hope, who sees approaching death as the final end, the absolute period at the end of the sentence, this is a longing that can never be fulfilled.
In this way, Blue Nights is a fitting culmination to Didion's work, a beautiful, heartbreaking testimony from one who refuses to hope. It is a longing for what is irretrievably lost. As Didion says, "In theory these mementoes serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see."
Alissa Wilkinson edits Comment and teaches English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. Her articles and criticism appear in Christianity Today, World, and other publications.
Copyright © 2011 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.