- Blue Nights
- Knopf, 208 pp.
The Weight of Memory
August 26, 2011 marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo. Note the emotional contradiction, the anniversary of a death. Many of us would hesitate at exploring a life soon after an unexpected loss (Quintana died young, only two years after her marriage). But then again, Didion has never been afraid of contradictions.
Blue Nights is another contradiction, a title that refers to the long twilights that herald the dwindling of summer days. After reading Didion’s memoir of her relationship with her daughter, I think of it in another way: Joan Didion is playing the blues.
Hard on the heels of The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that dealt with the death of her husband, Blue Nights sees Didion exploring what it means to be a parent. Painfully, awkwardly, she is improvising an honorarium, experimenting with the same riffs over and over until she finds the music of the writing.
The music is mostly memories of Quintana. Love, as they say, is in the details:
When she said she wanted cucumber and watercress sandwiches at her wedding I remembered her laying out plates of cucumber and watercress sandwiches on the tables we had set up around the pool for her sixteenth-birthday lunch. When she said she wanted leis in place of bouquets at her wedding I remembered her at three or four or five getting off a plane at Bradley Field in Hartford wearing the leis she had been given when she left Honolulu the night before.
We learn that Quintana Roo was adopted, a beautiful precocious girl with hair “bleached by the beach sun” and an unearthly adult sensibility. At the age of 5, she called the state psychiatric facility to “find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy;” soon after, she called Twentieth-Century Fox to “find out what she needed to do to be a star.”
Phrases, snatches of stories, things that Quintana has said, echo again and again in Didion’s mind – “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children;” “Colin sur la banquise;” “Daddy’s gone to get a rabbit skin to wrap his baby bunny in.” These echoes form the melody of Blue Nights.
Didion also talks about Quintana’s depths and shallows, quicksilver changes that she could not grasp. These changes were later diagnosed as manic depression, then OCD, then borderline personality disorder. Though Didion doesn’t harp on Quintana’s struggles, they provide the bass note throughout Blue Nights – seldom recognized, always present.
There is a second omnipresent note in Blue Nights: Joan Didion is afraid.
This is not surprising. Fear is the offspring of love. You cannot cherish something without dreading the day on which you will lose it. But in Didion’s case, her fear appears to be compounded by her losses: “Once she was born I was never not afraid.”
Not, “I was always afraid.” No, Didion is “never not,” a world of double negatives. A husband lost, a daughter lost, a world without anchors.
She is afraid for other reasons. She is afraid because her daughter has left her alone. She is afraid because she is increasingly frail and ill. She is afraid because she cannot escape her deep blue sea of memories. She is afraid of forgetting how to write:
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 tone needs to be direct.
I need to talk to you directly, I need to address the subject as it were, but something stops me.
It is these concerns that invade the second part of the book, as ICUs and medical pronouncements push out the 1960s world of Liberty lawn baby dresses and cigarette smoke and Saks bassinettes.
Perhaps most importantly, Didion is afraid that she didn’t live up to the love that others have given her. For Blue Nights is a book of questions that never have answers:
“Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?“ “Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?” “How could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?” “How could she have even imagined that I could take care of her?”
After reading this second part, a psychiatrist would pronounce Didion clinically depressed. He or she would, no doubt, encourage her efforts to “maintain momentum.” He or she might nod in approval at her efforts to follow the advice of her friends, her physicians and her family:
I regularly report to Sixtieth and Madison for physical therapy.
I keep the freezer stocked with Maison du Chocolat vanilla ice cream.
I collect encouraging news, even focus on it.
They might even suggest that Didion’s profession gives her a useful outlet to work through her pain. Didion is ambivalent about this.
“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 the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.
The double bind. If writing is memory, and memories torment the writer, what healing can there be in remembrance? But if writing is fully living, and fully living is essential – as I think it is for Didion – then what choice does she have?
None. Writers must write. There is no comfort of words for a parent that has lost a child. The blue nights must fade into fall. Questions remain unanswered and memories return unbidden.
Sometimes, it seems, to go on we must choose to forget.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.