By Joan Didion
Knopf, $25.00, 188 pages
A great book from one of the greatest living American authors: Joan Didion. In this beautiful prose poem, Didion confronts the issues surrounding our common mortality and sense of loss, both present and the anxiety of anticipated future loss. This reader first discovered Didion’s writing when a professor assigned “compare and contrast” the styles of a journalist with their fiction. He said there were no female writers in this category, only to later apologize and bring Joan Didion to my attention. Reading Play It As It Lays and Slouching Toward Bethlehem was a discovery of her masterful command of any category, including her later political writings.
“‘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 your no longer want to remember.”
There are so many wonderful passages in Blue Nights and even unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. In her personal life, Didion has suffered staggering losses of close friends; a beautiful niece, Dominique Dunne; her brother-in-law; her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne; and most incomprehensibly, her beautiful daughter, Quintana Roo, at age 39.
In her previous book The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion deals with the loss of her husband. In Blue Nights, Didion traces the life of her daughter in a quilt of remembered visions, fragments and stories that thread through the narrative like ribbons of persistent yet elusive memories. The repetition of certain phrases or memories serve as a Greek chorus punctuating her remembered stories: “Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.”
Sacramento-born Didion has an uncertain relationship with her birthplace. The most important Sacramento writer since Mark Twain has written of the five generations of Didions selling off their land, including the family cemetery. She has written of a California of endless freeways and fragmented connections. Yet despite her New York residence, she will always be essentially a California writer whose deep knowledge of the California mobility and uncertainty, which defines our lives and creates our losses, lends her theme of impermanence: “the center does not hold.” Blue Nights is an important book and a testament to the power and craft of this great writer.
Blue nights are the long, dark, evening hours before and after Summer Solstice. Didion tells us that they do not occur in California, the land of endless summers. Blue nights are a foreboding of chill and endless change. As Didion remembers her daughter, she also writes of the terrors of aging – also an un-Californian thing to do. In these moments the book becomes intensely personal, yet so vivid for those of us in this transition. Blue Nights is a remarkable achievement. It is a classic and the crowning achievement of her 14 other published books.
Reviewed by Julia McMichael