OCTOBER 28, 2011
WHEN I BEGAN SERIOUSLY READING Joan Didion, in my early twenties, my response was less “this is amazing” than “this is allowed?” As is the case with many young writers, early encounters with Didion felt to me like a revelation, a shocking and delightful window into what it meant to forge an intimacy with one’s readers while remaining duly mysterious. You can do it like this, the pages seemed to say. “This” meant the jagged, labyrinthine sentences, the unashamed brandishing of personal demons, the perennial list making. Moreover, that such stylings were permissible, that the work appeared in the most prestigious places and had made its author not only a success but an outright star, felt like a victory not just for words but for sound. To me, reading Didion’s prose has always been an aural experience as much as a literary one, as much about rhythm and intonation as whatever she’s talking (or in many cases not talking) about. It’s been about those long, earth-orbiting sentences that are almost always followed by short, decisive ones that let you catch your breath. It’s also about wondering, for those of us too young to know, what a cotton shift is. Or how she wants us to pronounce “detritus.”
Blue Nights, like 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking — and in some ways like the 2003 essay collection Where I Was From — has the hallmarks of relatively recent vintage Didion. That is to say, it’s sparer and more elliptical than the 1970s-era works — Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Goodbye To All That — that are often described as seminal and that have had generations of young writers copying her style by eschewing commas and throwing in references to cigarettes or prescription opioids wherever possible. An almost incomprehensibly tragic coda to The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicled the sudden death in 2003 of the author’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, Blue Nights takes on the demise of her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who died 18 months later.
As is well known to readers who care not just about the prose but also the personal life of Joan Didion — and that could plausibly constitute most of them — reports of Quintana’s illness had been circulating since around the time Dunne’s death was announced. It had been after a visit to the hospital, where Quintana was unconscious in an intensive care unit with pneumonia and septic shock, that Dunne had sat down at the dinner table and collapsed, a moment Didion has boiled down to: “John was talking, then he wasn’t.” The Year of Magical Thinking was published less than two months after Quintana’s death, after many hospitalizations (from acute pancreatitis), and as a result seemed in some ways like a book whose story had been robbed at the last minute of any possibility of closure. It was, in other words, a widow’s story that had suddenly been thrown off course into a story of child loss, one that clearly required its own book in due time. “I’m going through this process twice now,” Didion said in an interview inThe Guardian in 2005. “It’s a different process, because the relationship to a child is at once more fundamental and less intimate.”
The same might be said of Blue Nights. As fundamental as the relationship must surely be between author and material — which is to say the relationship between a mother and the experience of adopting, raising, and eventually witnessing the death of her daughter — there’s a discernible remoteness to the whole presentation, a seemingly deliberate effort not to speak for or in some ways even of her daughter out of concern for her privacy. Instead we get imagery. On the day of Quintana’s wedding, in July of 2003, we are told of stephanotis flowers, of cucumber and watercress sandwiches and “a peach colored cake from Payard’s.” On the day of Quintana’s adoption in 1966 we hear about “the Jax jerseys and printed cotton Lily Pulitzer shifts we were all wearing that year.” On the events leading up to the adoption we get a recollection about Didion’s being on a boat with family friends Howard and Lou Erskine as well as the game show host Monty Hall and his wife Diana Lynn.
At some point on the boat that weekend (presumably at a point, given the drift of the excursion, when we were having or thinking about having or making or thinking about making a drink) I had mentioned to Diana that I was trying to have a baby. Diana said I should talk to Blake Watson. Blake Watson had delivered her and Monty’s four children. Blake Watson had also delivered the adopted daughter of Howard and Lou Erskine, old friends of Nick’s and Lenny’s (Howard had gone to Williams with Nick) who happened to be on the boat that weekend. Maybe because the Erskines were there or maybe because I had mentioned wanting a baby or maybe because we all that had that drink we were thinking about having, the topic of adoption had entered the ether. Diana herself, it seemed, had been adopted, but this information had been withheld from her until she was twenty-one and it had become necessary for some financial reason that she know. Her adoptive parents had handled the situation by revealing the secret to (this had not seemed unusual at the time) Diana’s agent. Diana’s agent had handled the situation by taking Diana to lunch at (nor at the time had this) the Beverly Hills Hotel. Diana got the news in the Polo Lounge. She could remember fleeing into bougainvillea around the bungalows, screaming.
That was all.
Yet the next week I was meeting Blake Watson.
This commitment to keeping emotions at arm’s length, this preference for aesthetic details over personal details, this nearly GPS-level of precision when it comes to location (it’s not just the Beverly Hills Hotel but the Polo Lounge; lunch is not merely at The Bistro in Beverly Hills but at “the corner banquette usually reserved for Sidney Korshak”; we’re never merely in a hospital but at Lenox Hill, the Greenberg Pavilion at New York Cornell, the Columbia Presbyterian sports medical facility at 60th and Madison) has always been among the more intoxicating aspects of Didion’s writing. If there is one adjective that has been applied to the author and her work more than any other, it is most certainly “cool.” She’s cool in all senses of the word — detached, calm, sleek, in with the in-crowd — and this, of course, is part of what makes the young writers swoon. For female writers the crush can be especially intense, since the idea that a woman could have so little use for sentimentality and yet still appeal to a large audience can feel like something of a magic trick. But in Blue Nights, as in The Year of Magical Thinking, I often found myself exasperated by Didion’s relentless opacity. That’s not to say I didn’t understand why it was being employed — you cannot tell an honest personal story and keep your dignity without throwing at least a few slipcovers over the furniture — but, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, I wanted some straighter talk.
Is that an unfair request? Does the desire to know exactly what happened to Quintana represent a failure to meet the book on its own terms? (For what it’s worth, the details are laid out pretty clearly in a 2004 Vanity Fair article by John Gregory Dunne’s brother Dominick, as well as in a recent profile in New York Magazine.) And what about her psychiatric history, which Didion describes as “many conditions that got called by many names,” including, at one point, Borderline Personality Disorder? There’s also the not-inconsequential detail of Quintana “being found,” at age 32, by her biological family. This turns out to be a travesty in all the predictable ways; the birth parents, though not married at the time of Quintana’s birth, did later marry and have two children before they divorced. Their vital stats are not divulged, but Didion doles out the kind of hints that allow the reader to get a particular kind of gist. We know they were originally from Tucson but are now spread across Texas and Florida. We know that a private detective was hired to find Quintana for $200. We know that the family subsequently proceeded to behave in such a way that Quintana, feeling suffocated, gently suggested taking a “step back,” at which point the mother announced that she had disconnected her phone.
But, let’s be honest, this is not really what we want to know, or at least not all we want to know. We want to know what it was like when Quintana’s biological sister came to New York and “had dinner with John and me at Da Silvano.” We want more than a brief sentence describing the scene in Quintana’s apartment when, over margaritas and guacamole, her cousin, the actor Griffin Dunne, comes in and momentarily cannot tell the sisters apart. We want to know, in other words, what the hell it must have been like for a presumably working class, perhaps rather rough-around-the-edges red state family to discover that the daughter they gave up for adoption was raised by arguably the most glamorous literary couple of the late 20th century.
Again, I admit there’s something prurient, maybe even a little neanderthalic, in that desire. Writers cannot (should not) ever show us their whole hand, at least not if they ever want it back. That goes perhaps triple when the author is not only talking about grief but still actively coping with it. C.S. Lewis referred to the pages of A Grief Observed as “a defense against total collapse, a safety valve” — the operative word there being “valve,” which implies that a premium has been placed on control. There’s also the enduring fact of Didion’s writing being so taut that you have to believe that, on any given subject, she weighed all the possibilities before settling on what she considered the salient details. There’s a reason the passage I quoted above is so long. There was really no way to break it up or even pull out a single line without obliterating the effect she was after. But that, in the end, may be part of the problem with this story. It’s less a story than a series of effects. If it were a movie you can imagine it nearly devoid of dialogue, a paean to “better than better” living as though torn from the pages of The World of Interiors and shaped into beautiful abstruseness by Terrence Malick.
There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile.
There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair landing, one eye open, on guard.
Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
Not that I mean this as an abject criticism. Didion (like Malick, incidentally, whatever you think of his latest effort) is a virtuoso. She’s also a woman who’s suffered unfathomable loss. If she wants to write about a Bouvier des Flandres (it is unclear if this is a statue or a living pet) instead of actually telling what happened, that is her right. As frustrating as it might be for some, I suspect that Blue Nights will be as critically and commercially successful, if not more so, as The Year of Magical Thinking, which is regarded in many circles as a contemporary classic. But I also suspect that what we have in the 75-year-old Didion is a writer who believes so thoroughly in her own mythos and its trappings (the bougainvillea, the cigarettes and sunglasses, the designer shifts — oh, those shifts!) that the essential facts are rendered almost irrelevant. The woman could publish a shopping list and still convey the impression that something very important is being said about the anxieties of our time.
And, indeed, since at least the late 1960s Didion has had no reason not to believe in her mythos. Thanks to her and Dunne’s involvement in the movie business, the family stayed at The Lancaster and The Ritz and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, to name just a few. They were glamorous and intellectual at the same time (an almost unheard-of pairing today) and though Didion wrestles briefly with the notion of “privilege” and whether or not the family took it for granted, she reveals not a trace of self-mockery when offering, say, a recollection of a Christmas trip to Barbados, where, upon arriving at night, Quintana “had gone immediately to bed and I had sat outside trying to locate a line I believed to be from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques but was never able to find.”
When I was a young writer and shirking commas and writing run-on sentences and working airplane imagery into everything in an effort to sound worldly (Didion’s got a thing about jetliners and tarmacs, you may have noticed), I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. I loved the high/low aspect of it. I loved that she hung out with The Doors while also reminding herself to pack baby oil in her suitcase, that she could appreciate Henri Bendel jasmine soap as well as “the logic of the [Black] Panther position.” But now that I’m not quite as young I see the inherent limitations of this sensibility, not to mention the ways in which Didion seems to have aged out of high/low and landed comfortably in high/high. Many pages in Blue Nights are devoted to the sudden hospitalization and death of the actress Natasha Richardson, whose parents, Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, are close friends of the author. And though we learn next-to-nothing about Quintana’s husband, Gerry Michael (perhaps, again, out of respect for privacy), we are told with Didion’s customary nonchalance, that Quintana’s memorial service included a reading from Calvin Trillin and a lullaby from Patti Smith.
Yes, this is Didion’s world. These are her friends (longstanding, to be sure). No one should ask her to pretend otherwise. But to read Didion, especially over the last decade, is often to feel awash in unanswered questions. What does she know that she’s not telling us? Why have these things been deemed unworthy of telling? Moreover, why do such omissions continue to be “allowed”? Is it because the spaces between her lines hold genuine literary value? Or is it simply that her combination of mysteriousness and vulnerability adds up to something that feels like such raw, blood-on-the-page honesty, that we can’t help but give her the benefit of the doubt?
As it happens, I spent an afternoon with Didion back in 2003. We were being interviewed together for a magazine, after which we would pose for a photo that would accompany the interview. The meeting took place in her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dunne was rattling around in the kitchen while Didion and I talked in the living room; it was June, one month before Quintana’s wedding, seven months before John would collapse and die at the dinner table. When the hair and makeup people arrived for the photo shoot, it was determined that my bangs were too long and so I sat on a kitchen stool getting a trim while Didion got a broom from the closet and swept my hair off the floor.
At one point in our discussion, I’d asked her a technical question about fiction writing. I asked how best to handle a “close observer,” which is to say a narrator that drops in and out of the novel intermittently but is still privy to the other character’s thoughts and actions. She had achieved this in The Book of Common Prayer and later in Play It As It Lays.
She told me this: “Quite early on you say, ‘Some of what I know, I know from the past. The rest I believe to be true.'”
“Really? People will buy that?” I asked.
She told me Yes. It was that simple.
It is not that simple. I consider that afternoon one of the highlights of my professional life, but that answer was bullshit. She was suggesting something you can’t get away with unless you’re Joan Didion. And doesn’t that pretty much say it all?