Midway through Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, she recognizes tone as though it were a found object held in her hand— a photograph of her daughter Quintana Roo, who died in 2009. It’s not stoicism that keeps her from staring at it but more of a kind of nimbleness (or agility?) of mind, flipping through a book of sketches of when Quintana was three years old, of when she got married—the stephanotis woven into her braid—and ultimately, when she passed away. Didion holds these memories close to her, then realizes: The tone needs to be direct. I need to talk to you directly. It becomes a sort of eulogy about aging and its inevitability; hence, blue nights, as she describes in the prologue: During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.
The book is filled with mementos that date back to New Year’s weekend in 1966, when Didion and John Gregory Dunne (Didion’s husband and Quintana’s father) went to Cat Harbor to attend a party. Diana Lynn was there, and after she discovered that John and Joan were trying to have a baby (to adopt) she suggested Blake Watson, an obstetrician. On March 3 of the same year, as Joan was in the shower, Dr. Watson called and said, “I have a beautiful baby girl at St. John’s Hospital.” From that moment onwards memories are traced, and with Didion’s self-inquiry—the way in which she imagines her future as a mother, and how, after she has been granted her wish she hesitates—she includes Dr. Watson’s second statement: “I need to know if you want her.”
What if I fail to take care of this baby?
She writes: The tone needs to be direct.
Herein lies my respect for the way Didion is capable of taking sentiment and controlling it so precisely it’s as if she uses a steel instrument to cut out the images of her past; it becomes a style and voice all her own. To put it bleakly, unsentimentally, she’s facing the threat of death and coping with the loss of her daughter; yet still, she’s able to balance personal sentiment and literary architecture in a way that makes both seem as though they are destined for symbiotic partnering. Didion reveals how, inevitably, we get the privilege (and torture) of scanning over the memories of our past selves, and as readers, we don’t ask, Why should I care? With her particular grace and nuance, she directs our attention to the subject:
How does the mind work; how is memory contained; how do we endure it?
In the way astrology fascinates the scientist, this memoir is an experiment in which Didion is both doctor and patient, muse and artist, and the structure deftly reveals a control parallel to the quality of its language. Apart from the research—discernment, evaluation, comparisons between the way things are and the way things were, understanding them, coping with them—there’s music on the page. The sentences are like lyrics that continue to play in your head long after the song is done. By its ebb and flow there’s a tension of poetic sustenance. On one end the mind is frayed, on the other, precise. When we come to a repeated line (a technique used in The Year of Magical Thinking), a punctuation of an alternate meaning or perception of the same order of words, we begin to come close to understanding her point of view. And in this moment—Let me again try to talk to you directly—we spot the essayist. Puncture the yolk not with a declarative but with a question: Did I lose it? Did it frighten me?
Of course it’s musical. Do you wanna dance? I wanna dance, Quintana says to her mother as a child in their beach house off the coast of California. The way a sestina rearranges its words, the way a sonnet finishes.
Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it.
(How could one not dwell on it?)
It’s a line spoken by Quintana to her mother after she hears a poem Didion considers for John Dunne’s memorial service, W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” The idea is repeated in the book, like one of those lyrics that continues to return.
“She said she liked nothing about the poem,” writes Didion. “She said it was ‘wrong.’” The tone of the poem is harsh and rejects the world: Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/For nothing now can ever come to any good. She writes, “I now think of her vehemence differently. I now think she saw “Funeral Blues” as dwelling on it.”