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A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

The thing about Joan Didion, and it’s impossible not to notice this within a relatively short time, is that there’s a certain rhythm to the way she writes, a tone, a musicality, which creates a floating, dream-like essence to her prose. This conceals the precision of her words, the sheer effort that has gone into crafting the perfect sentence. And make no mistake, these are perfect sentences. Sparse, effortless (seeming), raw. It is a phenomena that Didion comments on in the book, here:


“The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted. I offer them as a representation of 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. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in an rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

The thing about this rhythm is that it really gets under your skin, to the point that it is easy to forget what you’re reading but instead simply allow yourself to drift along with the lovely rhythm of the words. Before you know it you’re thinking in this rhythm. It’s the kind of rhythm which, with a little creativity, could turn the description of the process of making perfect mashed potatoes into something profound, significant, into something worth reading. Which isn’t to say that what Didion writes isn’t worth reading.

Didion’s rhythm is famous as is her openness, the way in which she mines her personal history, her friends, her tragedies and presents them for the readers, what, entertainment? It isn’t the right word. Edification perhaps. In Blue Nights Didion explores the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo, to some misfortune which is never quite made clear. Except that she died, that was made clear. It is a terribly sad story, and it is evident that nothing about the distance of the event, or reflecting on it, makes it any less raw. In her neat, stripped down to the bones prose, Didion dissects both Quintana Roo’s life, her own life, their family. She also discusses the impact of her own aging, the descent into frailty which was both physical and mental. It is surprising to find that Didion was seventy five when she wrote Blue Nights. If she has lost any mental acuity, it does not present in her writing. Instead what we see is insightful, honest and true.

About aging, Didion writes:

“Let me again try to talk to you directly.
On my last birthday, December 5, 2009, I became seventy-five years old.
Notice the odd construction there – I became seventy-five years old – do you hear the echo?
I became seventy-five. I became five?
After I became five I never ever dreamed about him?
Also notice – in notes called Blue Nights for a reason, notes called Blue Nights because at the time I began them I could think of little other than the inevitable approach of darker days – how long it took me to tell you that one salient fact, how long it took me to address the subject as it were. Aging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored: I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are. When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent, The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty.”

The prime focus of this book is Quintana and her death, the way in which her death affected Didion, the critical self-examinations that followed. Quintana was an adopted child, this was something she was aware of from an early age. Was it her adoption that lead, inevitably, to her death? Was it something in the way she was brought up, was the knowledge of her ‘abandonment’ too much? Was the strangeness, the ‘privilege’ which Didion is at odds to point out is not quite what it seems, the adultness of her childhood the cause? Didion asks all these questions, examines Quintana’s life which is also her life as a mother, but finds no answers. How does this link to Didion’s own sense of age and frailty? Simply that, as she approaches those blue nights, the nights that foreshadow the darkness, the only person her life should still matter to is already in the ground.

Blue Nights is a book about loss and grieving. It is a book about loss and grieving in which the issue of grief is skirted and the loss lying at the centre is walked around, pushed, poked, reflected upon but not resolved. There is a rawness of emotion there, self-criticism, a sense that Didion is conning herself and through the book is trying to correct that yet doesn’t quite achieve it. This is not a criticism, I should point out. Didion directs us to a more critical way of thinking through her own efforts, and it is here where the strength of the book lies. Here and in its magical rhythm that is so familiar it is like being lulled to sleep listening to your mother’s heartbeat. Except in this case, I think I was lulled awake. Gratefully so.