It seems no review of Joan Didion’s work can avoid extolling her as “America’s most celebrated essayist.” With that in mind, Joan Didion, America’s most celebrated essayist, recently published her latest memoirs, “Blue Nights.”
The book is a rumination on the personal tragedies that have assailed Didion in the past few years. Within the space of 20 months, she faces obstacles that culminated in the death of her husband, the novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, and then her daughter, Quintana Roo.
“Blue Nights” is filled with the kind of clinical prose that is characteristic of Didion. Her surgical approach to writing helps the book avoid the pitfalls of many survivor’s tales; rather than falling into the sappy territory of survivor’s guilt, Didion deftly expresses the torrent of self-recrimination she is feeling without ever seeming trite.
Didion wrestles with her own shortcomings as a mother throughout the book, and it is heart-wrenching to see Didion try to place some of the blame for her daughter’s infirmity on herself. She recounts the story of how Quintana, then just 5 years old, placed a call to an asylum and asked to be committed.
“Was I the problem?” asks Didion plaintively. “Was I always the problem?”
Reading Didion’s work, portraying herself in her own words, one cannot help but feel she was not the best mother. Perhaps she paid too little attention to Quintana, a fact she readily acknowledges. In retrospect, she feels guilt for ignoring her daughter — “Brush your hair, brush your teeth, shush, I’m working” were the most common adages. But are not all parents prone to certain deficiencies? Who would blame Didion for her parental limitations? And who among us would dare to suggest her daughter died because of it?
“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents … Most of us recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies,” she wrote in “Blue Nights.” No author but Didion could summarize the guilt of a parent so aptly.
“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” writes Didion. This is a truism, for Didion at least. The deaths of her husband and then daughter have forced Didion herself to face up to her own fear of death.
It is a problem with which she is constantly grappling, especially in the second half of “Blue Nights.” More and more, we see the process of aging foregrounded as Quintana’s death provides a background, a counterpoint, a constant reminder of mortality.
When Didion herself is diagnosed with herpes zoster, a disease that leaves her feeling, to borrow Ntozake Shange’s phrase, “corporeally inept,” she is clearly in denial. “I maintain faith that my own symptoms will improve, lessen, even resolve. I collect encouraging news, even focus on it. I memorize my child’s face.”
By the end of book, one cannot help but feel confused. Didion the writer is scientific in her analysis of how Quintana’s death has affected her. But Didion the person, the mother, seems to have learned nothing.
“There is no day in her life on which I do not see her,” she wrote. And yet, for Didion, every day is a simultaneous repudiation of Quintana’s death and a meditation on it.
“Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Didion writes in rebuke of those trying to comfort her by focusing on the positive memories of Quintana’s life. The tragic irony is that, try as she might, Joan Didion simply cannot forget.