It took me forever to get this review written. I bought Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s latest work, in November, soon after it came out. It’s a small book and I figured I could read it in a day and get to work. I started it pretty quickly and read 40 pages. And then it sat on the night stand by my reading chair in my bedroom. I took the cover off, and the back photo haunted me every time I saw it—Didion’s daughter, young, sitting on a chair, elbows on knees with towhead in hands, too serious. And I couldn’t read it. I knew it was about mortality, and as Didion says “When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.” I knew her daughter, so ill in the first memoir, was going to die, had died, and so I spent a lot of time not reading it. And when I went back to Blue Nights in January, I opened my reading journal to see what I’d written, to remind me.
“There’s a sense of clinging about this…it’s humbling and haunting and it makes me want to stop reading it and go read a book or play a game with my kids.”
Oh, right. I’d stopped reading because it hurt too much. All the seconds Joan wouldn’t get to spend with her child, and here I am reading about it instead of spending time with my child. That’s a hard line to tread, but it occurred to me that as mothers (and fathers?), we do it all of the time, and I’m sure Didion’s no exception.
Didion’s fears about being a good mother are ubiquitous, and she bares them. What mother doesn’t feel inadequate? “I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents.” And if we don’t feel inadequate enough, plenty of people are ready to point out what they see as our faults. Enter “The Autumn of Didion” by Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic (but I found it through Byliner.com, which is like Pandora for CNF and which you should totally check out) Flanagan seems to know what kind of mother Didion was, and she doesn’t paint a very good picture. And that’s unfair. There is every possibility that Didion and Dunne were exceptional parents to their daughter—gasp—while managing to work. Maybe they weren’t. But because parents are busy and value their careers does not immediately qualify them for Worst Parent of the Year.
Critiques of Didion’s mothering skills and social anxieties aren’t really here nor there when we’re talking about her work, though. And a lot of people would agree with Flanagan when she said that Didion’s best works were Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I’ve not read her fiction, but The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights both seem to rely on the fact that Didion’s audience already knows her and has some baseline from which to draw in order to get up to speed tone-wise. Because I think it’s Didion’s tone that her fans love so much. Flanagan says Didion’s the Hunter S. Thompson for women: “She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair.”
Oh, bullshit. Didion didn’t give us quiet days and flowers. Didion gave us subtle malaise and powerful ennui, a palpable pessimism, and we fucking loved it. We emulated it, we studied it, we lived through those darkened sunglasses. We learned from it. And I think Didion’s still teaching us. Over at The Guardian, Rachel Cusk writes:
Didion’s strategy, or rather her instinct – the instinctive response to chaos – is to repeat herself. She struggles to revive the form and style of her earlier book, to make it live again; she repeats anecdotes, and often sentences, word for word; she creates repeating prose patterns whose effect, in the end, is to confer the author’s own numbness on the reader. What she cannot do is master her own material: instead of grieving with her, we are watching her grieve. This is a piteous and exposing process, and one which places a moral burden on the reader. And it is here that Didion’s lack of humility comes back to haunt her, for by burdening the reader she is also making herself vulnerable to judgment. Early on, describing a set of photographs of Quintana as a child, she writes: “In a few she is wearing a cashmere turtleneck sweater I brought her from London when we went that May to do promotion for the European release of The Panic in Needle Park.” What passed in The Year of Magical Thinking as the camaraderie of husband and wife becomes, at a stroke, something more disturbing – a kind of parental attention-seeking that again and again drives Didion’s sentences away from their subject and back to herself. “Was I the problem?” she asks. “Was I always the problem?”
She’s right about the language, the repetition, the construction. But Cusk misses the point here. Didion’s self-aggrandizement is a terrifying part of being a parent—never knowing whether you’ve done enough; or rather, knowing you’ve never done enough. Blue Nights is about apprehension of an ending, and the fact that Didion can’t stop bringing it back on herself is more about a parent’s guilt than narcissism.
I guess Cusk wasn’t drawn into Didion’s grief, but I certainly found parts of this book startlingly sad. I didn’t just watch as she grieved, because Joan Didion knows how to write grief. She offers us so many tiny moments of her unbearable grief—the “sundries” box, are you kidding me?! “Again, the careful printing. The printing alone I cannot forget. The printing alone breaks my heart”—that she avoids being drawn down too deeply. As in The Year of Magical Thinking, she circles the subject, because it’s too difficult to linger there. She’s not melodramatic, but that’s never been Didion’s thing. I do love that in this book she comes right out and tells us what it’s about:
When I began writing these pages, I believed their subject to be children…the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us…the ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear. The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other. As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all…their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death…only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
This is not in Didion style, and I think that’s why it feels so vulnerable. My thesis advisor stressed that we are always evolving as writers: “Do I really need to start this piece all over?” “Yes! You’re a different writer than you were two weeks ago.” I think Didion’s style is evolving, and that fans of Didion like me (Didionheads? Joan Drones? Slouchers?) can appreciate where her work has come from and what it is now, and still believe we have things to learn from Didion. Final words: Quick read, sad, worth it.