Doubt and Privilege

July 1, 2012

Joan Didion, Blue Nights, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2011

Reviewed by Vincent Ramos

Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt,’ began Joan Didion’s 1979 review of three of Woody Allen’s ‘serious’ pictures for the New York Review of Books.

There is evidence of both in Didion’s new memoir, Blue Nights. This was Didion’s first book since her account of grieving for her husband John Gregory Dunne in The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005.

Here, her grief is for her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who died only two years after Dunne.

Read alongside The Year of Magical Thinking it is almost a study in the difference between the grief one has for a lover and that one has for a daughter. While the earlier memoir was often lyrical and laudatory, Blue Nights is rawer – less formed. It is perhaps as Euripides asked: ‘What greater grief can there be for mortals, than to see their children dead?’

And while, of course, this is a narrative of grief, much of it revolves around two other things: doubt and privilege.

Doubt

Didion’s doubt arises in great part from physical frailty. Here she is older and weaker than in Magical Thinking. The added grief of losing Quintana has given rise to new doubts.

She doubts her ability as a parent (doubts amplified by Quintana being an adoptee, doubts surrounding the ‘choice narrative’ familiar to adoptees and adopters, doubts surrounding abandonment, of even deserving a child), doubts in her old age as to her capacity for memory, as a writer in her capacity for storytelling.

In places she entertains these misgivings, explores them in depth, and invites you to believe that she placed her career ahead of her daughter, that she was self-indulgent bordering on neglectful, that the privileged life afforded by the nature of her work contributed to her daughter’s death. In other places Didion writes in defiant certainty against all such misgivings.

As she did so charmingly in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion picks at every fragment of memory. She commands her mind to explore every physical object that now represents absence, every diagnosis for something that she might only know when she saw it. Every dream of Quintana’s, every nightmare her daughter had relayed – all these could be clues to how events might have turned out differently. Or else signs of Didion’s failure as a parent.

Still early in the narrative Didion ruminates on the act of hoarding physical mementoes for their conjuring properties, then quickly rejects its facility. ‘I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted,’ she writes. After detailing a number of these fetish objects, she describes them as ‘objects from which there is no satisfactory resolution.’

But textual rumination of various types occurs throughout Blue Nights, including the act of thinking on a memory to perhaps make it altogether different. Throughout the book, Didion commits to text a roll call of friends, acquaintances and loved ones who had since died. ‘1971, at age forty-five, of a cerebral bleed,’ read one, as though the act of recalling the dead – as with the act of recalling a memory or object of significance – would do what?

She writes: ‘In theory these mementoes serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.’

Where in The Year of Magical Thinking Didion almost hoped to use words to come to an alternate turn of events, the recollections in Blue Nights come with resignation, like incantations left half-chanted.

Privilege

Also as she did in Magical Thinking, Didion colours her narrative with the brands, the famous names and the exclusive places that she has enjoyed. She has a very keen eye for the minutiae of privilege – even as she explains that it was all ‘on expenses’ – and a very keen eye for the correct ‘stance’, the correct style with which to comport oneself. She differentiates Quintana’s ‘real’ christening from the ‘dress-up’ christening – at St Martin of Tours, of course – with the many women ‘wearing Chanel suits and David Webb bracelets’. She recalls friend Diana ‘holding a champagne flute and smoking a cigarette’ who ‘over the New Year’s weekend on Morty’s boat’ had encouraged her to adopt.

Some have been uncharitable in their estimation of these descriptions, but the simple conclusion is merely that Didion invokes the privilege of her life to indicate its stability, to insist that that privilege made no difference when it came to the onset of illness or the effects of human frailty. The seal of privilege is not hermetic.

Privilege, she is telling us, doesn’t mean that illness won’t visit itself on you – privilege may afford connections that ensure the best medical care, privilege may afford the means and circumstance with which to fund that care – but none of it can be enough to evade that illness, that need for sophisticated medical care.

Didion has been defensive in subsequent interviews about detailing this privilege. She muses over perhaps having made Quintana an adult too soon, of exposing her, particularly, to the ‘Hollywood lifestyle’. But perhaps Didion simply cannot help herself: she lists the hotels Quintana enjoyed, how and when Quintana learned how to sign her room number for room service, her first experience of caviar, her jet-set reaction to watching a movie (‘I think it’s going to be a big hit’).

Somewhere past the halfway point of the book, however, Didion drops much of the decoration. In relatively spare prose (she even announces this as her intention: ‘Let me again try to talk to you directly’), she writes about Quintana ‘being found’ by her biological family, about the ‘muddled feelings’ she had as an adopting parent, about the muddled feelings Quintana had, and that her biological mother had. She writes about turning seventy-five, echoing an episode she recounts of Quintana turning five, thereby highlighting an age Quintana that will never reach.

She writes with barely concealed terror about aging and its attendant frailty. These chapters, including one in which she describes a fall she suffered in June 2009 and her subsequent hospitalisation and tests, I found among the most affecting in this little book. ‘What does it cost,’ she asks, ‘to lose those weeks, that light, the very nights in the year preferred over all others?’

‘Can you evade the dying of the brightness?’

In Magical Thinking, for example, she acknowledges this, writing that style was ‘a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.’ Now, in Blue Nights, Didion exposes herself even as she tries to withhold emotion – the unpostured baring of everything – with her typical style. But no style can defend against this new pain.

In Didion’s world, there seem to be two types of parent – those who consider themselves as having ‘succeeded as parents’, and those who don’t. In this world, the proper ‘stance’ would be to be self-deprecating of one’s accomplishments and abilities in this area. Quite possibly because one knew it, or believed it.

In this world, ‘ordinary blessings’ – the mundane, well-meaning hopes parents express for their children – are imbued with special significance, their yearning replaced with the unfulfilled dangle of loss.

The reader clearly senses the depth of meaning that writing Blue Nights had for Didion, but clearly, too, this is a less polished account. In this book Didion is older, her physical self weaker, and Quintana’s death more taxing than that of Dunne.

This is not a universal narrative of sorrow and recovery as Magical Thinking was, but a recounting of Didion’s specific experience of mourning as a mother. Blue Nights is not about shared heartaches. It’s uncomfortably close to a literary equivalent of staring at a woman stricken with grief.

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