OCTOBER 26, 2011
BLUE NIGHTS IS JOAN DIDION’S LYRICAL MEMOIR about her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who died in 2005. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite oblique, and confronts almost nothing bluntly head on. In many ways, it is an obvious sequel to the writer’s Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir Didion wrote about the loss she’d suffered two years before Quintana’s death, when Didion’s husband, the screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne, collapsed in their New York City apartment from a massive heart attack and died. At the time of his death and for months afterward, Quintana Roo, the couple’s only child — at 39, a recent bride — lay in a coma in a hospital bed, suffering from a number of chronic and acute illnesses. She recovered well enough to attend a long-postponed service for her father, but then suffered an onslaught of emergency medical problems that led to acute pancreatitis, and her death.
Which left Joan Didion quite alone — and this is the intended subtext of Blue Nights. For like any Didion work of nonfiction, the book is more about Didion’s experience of its ostensible subject than it is about the subject itself. In fact, this is not a book that’s just about Quintana, or about the loss of family. This is autobiography at its most fragmented: Didion veering from her desire for a baby (one never imagines the author as maternal in any way, although she did buy a nice dress for Linda Kasabian, the Manson girl, so that Kasabian could look good at her trial) to the adoption of Quintana, and then into her own childhood in Sacramento and elsewhere, and from that into sweet snippets (and not so sweet) from Quintana’s Eloise-like upbringing. Then back again to Didion, and Hollywood, and going on location, and hanging out with other famous people, and dinner parties, and martinis and boats and fashion, etc., etc. Here’s Didion:
I am forced to remember the hotels in which [Quintana] had stayed before she was five or six or seven… On the face of it she had no business in these hotels.
The Lancaster and the Ritz and the Plaza Athenée in Paris.
The Dorchester in London.
The St. Regis and the Regency in New York, and also the Chelsea. The Chelsea was for those trips when we were not on expenses…
It was at the Ambassador, in the Pump Room at midnight, that she ate caviar for the first time…
Incidentally, her list of the very best hotels in the western world continues on longer than this, as if Didion herself — an Army brat who once lived with her brother and parents in one room, as she tells us, with “kitchen privileges” — still cannot believe the dizzying heights to which her success and her husband’s had brought her. And, by extension, Quintana.
The journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote, in 1979:
When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer — not entirely facetiously — that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender loveseats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo; I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator’s having pleated instead of gathered her new dining-room curtains.
Harrison saw this conspicuous materialism as the essence of Didion’s natural conservatism, and didn’t like it. She didn’t think this trait was allowable in a person considered a chronicler of the 1960s. But maybe Harrison hadn’t really read Didion on, say, the subject of California, where Didion’s desire to preserve the past comes in handy in her analysis of the state’s peculiarities. Or perhaps she had confused Didion with a social activist and found her lacking. Of all things, Didion is no social activist. As Gloria Emerson, the journalist and novelist, once said — in her Brahmin accent — to an aspiring writer who was, at that moment, doing her children’s laundry: “Please! You’re a Writah!!!” Didion’s a writer, and her politics and emotional connection to public events are idiosyncratic and singular, to say the least. She doesn’t go along with other people’s orthodoxies. That may be what makes her irritating, but it’s also what makes her great, in the real sense of the word — and important, and American.
Blue Nights is short and compelling. Quintana’s childhood and her dying are laced throughout, but we hardly know her, and, as in The Year of Magical Thinking, the aftermath of her life and death are more passionately and intimately described than the woman herself. “[T]here was a period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present […] by preserving their mementos, their “things,” their totems,” Didion writes. But now she finds that most of these are, rather than explanations or spirit-holders, simply “objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” Nonetheless, with nothing better to hold on to — and who can say that there ever really is anything better to hold on to, in the end? — Quintana appears less as a whole person than as a series of sweet, floral images: items of memorable clothing (a flower woven into her hair, a tattoo, her wedding veil, the red soles of her bridal shoes, a black wool dress Didion bought her from a stylish New York Store when Quintana was four years old), and precocious quotes from childhood that, with our foreknowledge of Quintana’s fate, seem imbued with meaning and portent. “‘Where did the morning went?’” Quintana asks her mother, “at the Royal Hawaiian when she woke, still on mainland time, and found the horizon dark.”
Noting its power and beauty, Didion repeats the phrase again at the end of the book, without the quotes. This memoir is full of echoes and repetitions, so much so that at times it can feel mannered, at other times overextended. While much is said about what Quintana wore at her wedding two years before she died, little is explained about why a woman who should have been in her strongest, healthiest years died of a long series of intractable medical complaints highly unusual in someone her age. One feels there is something of a mystery here and that Didion is not interested in spelling out the fine points of Quintana’s diagnosis — although she lets us know that as a child Quintana was quirkily concerned about her own health, and interested in illness. The constant with this child and the later adult, Didion tells us, was “disability.” But she says no more, is no more explicit. That’s fine, and elegant, but explains very little.
What the book also doesn’t do, and doesn’t try to do, is make you think that Didion was an expert “mom.” She was no cuddly, hearth-poking, oven-tending, playdate-making, child-centered anchor; she paints herself, and Dunne as well, as more like a wild sailboat on fast currents, dragging Quintana along behind. “What if I fail to love this baby,” Didion asks herself on bringing Quintana home. Not the most auspicious beginning, though more common than perhaps Didion suspects. The book’s many pages on the perils and real torments of adoption and its sequelae are among its most important. Or at least its most socially valuable. Certainly, parents of adopted children will be moved by these sections, with their examination of the nature of maternal love, concerns about the biological family turning up (which it does), and their direct presentation of Quintana’s incessant worrying about the chancy aspect of her life story: What if you hadn’t answered the phone when Dr. Watson called? … What if you hadn’t been home, what if you couldn’t meet him at the hospital, what if there’d been an accident on the freeway, what would happen to me then? “Since I had no adequate answer to these questions,” Didion writes, “I refused to consider them.” But, as she points out, Quintana “considered them. She lived with them.”
Didion, who is nothing if not respectful of the child and adult Quintana in Blue Nights, does give her daughter a momentary star turn when she reprints a section of the novel the girl wrote “just to show us.” Following in her illustrious parents’ wake, this child seems to have been an intrepid soul, and a smart little survivor — until she didn’t survive, and Joan did.
At the end of the book is a scene that could come from no other writer. Here, Didion, owlish and bony (we assume), examines a 1968 photo of the buxom, dazzling, glamorous Sophia Loren, at a Christian Dior fashion show in Paris, sitting in the front row. She imagines Loren, “forever soignée,” putting out her sophisticated cigarette, leaving the show, and heading off to Didion’s beloved Plaza Athenée hotel. Didion easily could have stayed at Vogue, where she was an editor just out of college, if she hadn’t had the conscience of her era, an eye as observant of the inner as of the outer, and, of course, that writer’s voice like no other. Her sense of fashion informs a great deal of her opinion, as Grizutti-Harrision observed, and the intensity of her feeling for dress and costume, for interiors and exteriors, for the meaning of the façade — it’s remarkable. Didion pictures Loren having an éclair in the Plaza Athenée’s comme-il-faut courtyard, and writes: “I imagine the sound of the little birds that flock in the [ivy], a twittering, a constant presence and an occasional — when, say, a metal shutter is opened, or when, say, Sophia Loren rises from her table to cross the courtyard — swelling of birdsong.” Who else could write that sentence that way, and who else would? That phrase about the metal shutter, set off with dashes, in the explosive middle of a scene of such pointless elegance — who else would dare to be at once so precious and so serious? Who else could invest such a meaningless, invented moment with such heft and significance? And to what end?
Well, the point of the inspection of the photograph, and of the invention of the pretty moment at the hotel, is Didion’s realization that she and Loren are both 75 years old. Acquainting herself through Google Images (Joan Didion, surfing Google Images!) with the sexy Italian star’s seemingly indomitable spirit and sexuality — her continuing vivaciousness, her enduring celebrity and visibility — helps the bereft, birdlike Didion persevere.
One likes to imagine Sophia Loren on the other side of the pond, surfing Google as well, and comforting herself with the publication by Joan Didion, age 75, of yet another accomplished, moving, and provocative book.
For the reader, in many ways, this book is less about the loss of Quintana than it is about the impending loss of Joan Didion. It’s very hard to imagine American literature without her — without her intelligence, her discerning eye, her refusal to abandon her allegiance to “taste,” her elitism, her democracy, her plain, twisted, harsh sentences — and yet one must. For those of us who watched her as the slender, stylish, shade-wearing chronicler of the Manson era, it’s simply weird, and terrible, to think of her as a patient, an old woman in nothing but a hospital gown, in a doctor’s cold office, now filling out insurance forms, now being told about her shingles, her melanoma.
And trying to decide whose name to fill in as the person she would like to have notified in case of emergency.