(Note: If you have not read but plan to read Joan Didion’s newest memoir, “Blue Nights,” be warned that the posting below contains ‘spoilers,” and it might make sense to wait to read my thoughts until after you have read her book.)
Joan Didion, an icon to many, has followed up her The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir about the year she struggled to exist following the sudden death of her husband, with a second memoir.
Blue Nights, I thought, was going to be a memoir of Didion’s portrayal of the 20-month, mostly downward, rollercoaster decline and ultimate death of her adopted daughter. I had read, twice actually, The Year of Magical Thinking (and very much liked it) as well as saw the Vanessa Redgrave one woman Broadway portrayal based on the memoir (didn’t think it worked as theater as well as it did as a memoir). And so I was very much looking forward to her new book.
I admire Didion’s willingness to open herself and to write about what I don’t think anyone who has not lost a child can possibly know, feel, or truly understand. But whether because my expectations may have been misguided, or, for other reasons, which I will mention below, I was disappointed with Blue Nights.
First, Blue Nights, to my reading, is not really about the loss of Didion’s daughter as much as it’s about Didon’s concerns about her mothering of her daughter and even more so about Didion’s concerns about what is happening to herself — her own aging and loss of her own faculties.
Nothing wrong with a book about that.
But Blue Nights is unlike Didon’s other writings, which have always seemed very polished and very thorough. This memoir seemed more hurried, more stream of conscious, and to me seemed not as perceptive nor as insightful as her other writings.
Still, nothing wrong with writing a different kind of a memoir.
I suspect I expected more from Blue Nights, or maybe I expected different things. I never learned very much about her daughter at all. And I didn’t really learn what the loss meant for Didion, at least not in the way the loss of her husband affected her.
And so I went to a conversation between Didion and Susan Stamberg of NPR the other night in DC to see and to try to understand more about Blue Nights. And more about Joan Didion too.
The evening began with a wonderful ten-minute film of Didion reading the first chapter of the memoir. The ‘film’ was interspersed with pictures of her daughter, her husband, and herself and somehow filled in some of the holes and answered some of the questions I had about her daughter.
Then the wonderful Susan Stamberg spent the next 45 minutes ‘interviewing’ Didion in that wonderful way Stamberg has of not just asking questions but also of getting beyond the surface, of getting to what matters.
And this is what I learned from that conversation:
*Didion had difficulty writing this memoir, or at least getting started, and early on she stopped writing, and only resumed when she found a way to frame the memoir by using the concept of ‘blue nights,’ that time at the end of the day where the long twilight indicates the end of the day.
*She started with her daughter’s wedding, also as a way into the memoir as it was a happy time.
*There really is no narrative in Blue Nights. Rather, it is like “pieces of confetti,” said Didion. “Mostly it is snapshots.”
*She had no clue on how to be a mother, treated her daughter as a doll, and relied on what her own mother had taught her about mothering.
*While probably every parent has anxieties about their children’s safety, Didion said she was always afraid, always had “manifold fears that (harm) could come” to her daughter.
*At the same time, Didion said, “I have a great gift for denial.” And in some way, that defense seems to have been an important part of her ability to survive.
*Writing has been her way of “figuring things out.” With the book about her husband, she felt she could almost hear him say, “Get to it.” Write it.
*For Blue Nights, she found it much more difficult to write. Didion said she “was reaching for words which just weren’t there.”
*Unlike her other writings, Didion said, this memoir is “very unpolished, very out there.”
Didion, not surprisingly, still seems to be trying to figure out what has happened to her. And while I admire her willingness to write about her losses, I can only hope that she will be able to move beyond Blue Nights, figuratively and literally, and write again.