Within twenty months, Joan Didion lost both her husband John and her daughter Quintana. These unexpected and devastating losses prompted two memoirs: The Year of Magical Thinking and the recently published Blue Nights. The memoir itself is a dangerous genre, and the difficulties are fairly clear when it is poorly executed. The coherent articulation of a private experience (often a tragic one) in a public form always risks a certain narcissism, but the form presupposes a dramatisation of lived experience, and so we naturally crave a tolerable amount of this self regard—it’s simply inevitable. At its best, the memoir allows the reader into an ordinarily private world; the escape into this world is enthralling and emotionally provocative; it inspires a deep sympathy for the writer on the part of the reader. At its worst, it reads like a teenager’s diary: a sloppy rendition of an experience which engenders more pity than sympathy. In The Year of Magical Thinking, I think Didion brought a level of perfection to the genre. Blue Nights, at its weakest moments, feels like a bad a sequel.
‘Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity’. These are the first words of The Year of Magical Thinking and they are its enduring refrain. Your husband dies in the middle of dinner, you go to the hospital and are referred to as a ‘cool customer’, you come home and clean the dinner table your husband just died on. These experiences, which possess a fearful universality for any married couple, are the strong foundation upon which Didion builds her earlier memoir. Blue Nights, written in the wake of her daughter Quintana’s death builds from a less universal experience. Many spouses will watch the other die. Fewer will watch their children die. But the story Didion wants to tell is larger than that:
As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children at all…their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death. This fear.
Didion’s scope widens, and in doing so becomes less about her daughter and more about her own fears of failed parenting, illness and neurosis. But then it doesn’t—and it shifts from a montage of unanswered questions to painful memories. Didion writes ‘Memories are by definition of times past, things gone…Memories are what you no longer want to remember’. Often these childhood memories are deeply moving, and clearly painful for Didion: young Quintana’s poems (‘The world/has nothing/but morning/and night’); Quintana’s childhood nightmares of ‘The Broken Man’; her high-school diaries; her wedding; her meeting her biological sister (she was adopted). Throughout all of this Didion grapples with the process of aging.
Though terrified and moved by this deluge of memories and fears, I couldn’t escape the absence of momentum. A completely linear story line may not be necessary, but the feeling that I was reading a series of random two and a half page reflections, one after the other, was inescapable. A certain coherence of narrative, which The Year of Magical Thinking certainly possessed, seemed to have fallen away. The memoir does not always demand a completely unified structure, and often the resolution of bereavement is simply that there is no resolution. But the ‘unflinchingly honest’ quality of a memoir, as it is so often critically hailed, is also the quality which can result in its seeming completely unassimilated, and Blue Nights feels inadvertently rough. There is a sadness in this, seeing as Didion has established herself as one of the greatest American non-fiction writers, and it was this sadness that bothered me: I found myself not in sympathy with the subject matter, but pitying Didion’s actually writing the book. A deep shame accompanies this judgment, since one of Didion’s greatest fears throughout Blue Nights is the fear of being declared an invalid, being treated as a child in her old age. ‘When we lose that sense of the possible we lose it fast,’ she remarks in the final chapter. This forlornness infects the tone of Blue Nights, and made me question the limits of my own sympathy.