How does one write about grief?
The ‘vortex’ is what Didion called it in The Year of Magical Thinking – a feeling that consumes utterly, that swallows you whole. The chance stumbling upon an object or place or day that reminds you of those lost, so powerfully, you feel you may suffocate. It is the vortex of a particular date – July 26, 2010 – that triggers the new memoir: ‘Today would be her wedding anniversary,’ Didion writes, and from this memory comes the tumbling of thoughts and associations, musings and regrets that is Blue Nights.
‘Blue nights’ are, according to Didion, a span of time in certain latitudes ‘approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.’ Didion takes this phenomenon as her title because,
at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.
The work tracks the time following The Year of Magical Thinking – to which Blue Nights is something of an epilogue. The earlier book described the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and the deterioration of their daughter, Quintana, who lay unconscious in the hospital at the time of his death. Blue Nights documents the loss, less than two years later, of Quintana. But while the memoir is ostensibly ‘about’ her daughter’s death, Quintana is almost entirely absent in these pages – we never really get a sense of her. Whereas in The Year of Magical Thinking – by virtue of his being a writer – Dunne’s presence was strongly felt and Didion could often infer his thoughts from his novels, Blue Nights is essentially about Didion’s own fears: on ageing, her increasing frailty, and of being utterly alone – on the sixth anniversary of her daughter’s death.
Didion’s style has been called ‘white writing’ – a ‘pure’ style devoid of authorial persona, modeled on the erasure of the self central to traditional journalistic writing. Didion reinvented what constituted a literary sentence: free of colour, sentiment and rhetoric – a flat, spare, affectless prose stripped of all ostentation. Her novels were almost entirely implicit, entirely in the whiteness of the pages – so much so that when I bought The Year of Magical Thinking and fifty pages in the middle of my copy were completely blank, for a few moments I was genuinely unsure whether it was a printing error (it was). Play It As It Lays – for me, the apex of Didion’s elegant style – was almost an exercise in typography: more white space than print, with some chapters only a paragraph long. Didion herself has written of Play It As It Lays as: ‘a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams.’
Didion brings her own bad dreams to Blue Nights.
Distance was what made her earlier works so powerful – presenting raw and terrible occurrences in flat prose. One of the most powerful moments in a Didion novel is the scene in Play It As It Lays where the protagonist Maria Wyeth undergoes an abortion. What makes it so powerful is the bare way in which it is written – stripped of all emotion and intensity and for precisely that reason actually being more emotionally affecting. Though, of course, Play It As It Lays was fiction, Didion’s freelance writing, in collected works such as The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem hold the same sort of white writing about tragic events – murders, natural disasters, deaths.
In Blue Nights, however, Didion is too close to the material. Reading it, at times, makes you wince. I felt like a voyeur – standing at a funeral to which I was never invited, or gawking from the safety of a passing car at the twisted carnage of a crash.
Didion writes of a novel Quintana began as a child, which Quintana referred to as ‘the novel I’m writing just to show you’ – Didion, it is clear, feels Blue Nights is similarly written ‘just to show us’ but though the book is desperately trying to show us, instead it descends into telling us, over and over. The novel is continually interrupted with the instructions of the narrator: ‘what to do “when the fire comes.” Do note: not “if the fire comes.” When the fire comes’. Yes, this is a memoir, but the intrusions are jarring and at times feel like watching a film with the director’s commentary turned on:
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 that talk about aging in their first few pages, 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.
It’s as though she cannot let the work go, cannot trust her audience to read the text properly, draw the right conclusions, note the correct parts. She no longer allows the prose to speak for itself as her earlier writing so beautifully and powerfully did.
If Didion’s earlier writings could be characterised by the white page, this one can be characterised by the question mark. Why do I write? What do I mean? Why didn’t I see? These questions torment Didion, plaguing her and the text itself.
Time passes. Yes, agreed, a banality, of course time passes. Then why do I say it, why have I already said it more than once? Have I been saying it the same way I say I have lived most of my life in California? Have I been saying it without hearing what I say? Could it be that I heard it more this way: Time passes, but not so aggressively that anyone notices? Or even: Time passes, but not for me?
In Blue Nights the ‘blankness’ for which she was famous now only occurs in the absence of answers to the questions she endlessly poses – though this failing is perhaps the truest representation of the experience of death and grieving; unanswered because unanswerable.
There are, indeed, flashes of her old brilliance – she conveys beautifully the small, heartbreaking moments in the years following the death of a loved one:
There was a period […] during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their ‘things,’ their totems. The detritus of this misplaced belief now fills the drawers and closets of my apartment in New York. There is no drawer I can open without seeing something I do not want, on reflection, to see. There is no closet I can open with room left for the clothes I might actually want to wear. In one closet that might otherwise be put to such use I see, instead, three old Burberry raincoats of John’s, a suede jacket given to Quintana by the mother of her first boyfriend […]
In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment.
In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.
But, ultimately, this is a book about the inability to write the book. Where once Didion’s style and tone were so sure, with a technique bordering upon journalistic reportage, Blue Nights has lost this. Instead, Didion is unable to find the right words, and she writes powerfully of her doubts about her own writing:
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. Is this another kind of neuropathy, a new frailty, am I no longer able to talk directly? Was I ever? Did I lose it?
In The White Album Didion wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Blue Nights is, I think, the story Didion had to tell us – and herself – in order to live. This isn’t a badly written book – indeed, it is a powerful expression of the experience of grief and loss. But there were moments reading it where I mourned for the dying of Didion’s brightness too.
— Joan Didion’s Blue Nights is out now through Fourth Estate.