Joan Didion wrote her previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, to describe her grief after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. It is unlikely that she was interested in producing a sequel. But shortly before that book was published, in 2005, Didion's daughter Quintana died as well, of acute pancreatitis after a series of illnesses, at 39. Now Didion has written another book, equally moving, which forms a melancholy companion piece to the first. But in Blue Nights, Didion is mourning not just the loss of her daughter. She's also mourning the loss of herself.
Blue Nights initially presents as an oddity. The pages look weird, filled with rhetorical questions and one-sentence paragraphs piled on top of one another in teetering stacks. Didion addresses the reader, and sometimes herself, with disquieting directness. The narrative sways back and forth between past and present. All this could be mistaken for wandering. But Didion is too sharply self-aware a writer to allow herself to wander far.
Quintana Roo--adopted at birth, her name plucked impulsively from a map of Mexico--was a precocious child who liked to play at being an adult. She kept a drawer labeled "My IRA." When she was 5, she called 20th Century Fox to discuss her future career as a starlet. She also called a local psychiatric hospital "to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy." It's cute, but there's something behind it that isn't. Quintana genuinely felt a burden of responsibility for the family, particularly for her mother, who seemed frail and vulnerable. "One of her abiding fears," Didion writes, "was that John would die and there would be no one but her to take care of me."
Didion gives us out-of-sequence Kodachrome glimpses of her daughter's sun-splashed and glamorous childhood, much of which appears to have been spent going from hotel to hotel with her globetrotting parents. (Didion bristles pre-emptively at the adjective privileged, though if there's another word for a childhood that involves hanging out with the Richardson-Redgrave family in St.-Tropez, I'd like to hear it.) We see Quintana going off to school; we watch Didion making her daughter's lunch. One evening, Quintana greets her parents with the news that she has cancer (it's actually chicken pox). Touching as these details are, they're perilous territory for a memoirist. As any parent knows, there is a delicious, almost sensuous self-indulgence in talking about one's child. A good rule of thumb for budding autobiographers would be to avoid reproducing, in full, a poem their child wrote in grade school (as Didion does). There are memoirs, and then there are refrigerator doors.
But Didion's is the sort of self-indulgence that, after five decades of highly self-disciplined writing, she has earned. She gives in to nostalgia and sentimentality, but she also watches herself give in to it with a cold and ruthless disapproval. Didion alternately clutches her memories to her and pushes them away like a fickle lover. "You have your wonderful memories," people say to her, "as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone ... Memories are what you no longer want to remember." They awaken excruciating longings and regrets. Didion handles them like dangerous irradiated objects, to be touched with robotic hands from behind leaded glass.