Deep into the blue

Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Alfred E. Knopf, 2011.

Joan Didion’s new work, Blue Nights, is a book of reversals. The will behind it is the fight against forgetfulness. Blue Nights is not a novel or an extended essay, but a collection of theme-driven musings about the horrible, lingering death of her troubled and troublesome daughter, Quintana Roo, adopted at birth and named after an empty place on a map of Mexico. To make sense of this upset in the universal scheme, Didion takes fragments of speech or poetry from her daughter’s childhood and meditates on their meaning, searching for some kind of foreshadowing of the events that end Quintana’s adulthood and very nearly do the same for Joan.

It is a pointless exercise, of course. The things that children do and say mean very little thirty years later, but this, to some extent, exposes Didion’s motivation. We all want to think that our children are gifted or special – but we mean this in a very specific way. We mean that we want them to be smarter or better-looking or more successful than their age-mates. We want them to have jobs and friends and families of their own. We want them to be happy in some way that we have been, if we are lucky, or in some way that we missed out on, if we weren’t.

When they turn out to be incapable of managing these things, or to be different in less salubrious ways, or to wallow in the low-grade misery the rest of the human race does, we are shocked, ashamed, disappointed. And we want answers to the eternal question.

There are no answers in Blue Nights. The chapters, mimicking the frustration and circular logic of dislocation, work in reverse, beginning with anecdotes and ending with the rhetorical questions that have framed the narrative all along. This is hard material to read – not because there is anything inherently wrong with the structure, but because Blue Nights is essentially a trauma diary, with all the gaps, misrepresentations and self-interruptions that the genre entails.

Adopted children used to be given the “choice” narrative, “the moment when, of all the babies in the nursery, we picked her”. Didion expands the pun: all of Blue Nights is the choice narrative in which she picks at the seams of memory in her efforts to track her loss.

The content is telling. That there is much less material from Quintana’s adulthood indicates that Didion is inclined to preserve her ideas of her daughter as a child, during a time when there was still a “sense of the possible”. She later writes, casually, that Quintana Roo is once diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder, which is an officious way of saying that someone is generally unfit for ordinary interaction with other human beings. As an adult, she is also a full-blown alcoholic. Clearly, we are missing some of the puzzle pieces in the narrative that is presented as Blue Nights.

Didion uses the refrain “it did not occur to me” with bitter wonderment. She invites the reader to collude with her regarding her own obtuseness during her daughter’s formative years, but that self-mockery is unfair. The central question, “What could I have done differently?”, is used by both the self-flagellatory and the self-congratulatory. In real life it is unanswerable, the false promise of easy but meaningless two-roads-in-the-woods-type scenarios. The answer is: “Nothing”. Hindsight is useless, and you only get one go at child-rearing. Sometimes the odds are just stacked against you.

In literary life, however, you get a do-over. Here the question provides a framework for the investigation Didion pursues, as if clarity on her family’s processes will shed a similar light on the workings of chance and fate.

Writing preserves. In Blue Nights, the thing that most parents fear the most – the death of their children – has already occurred. What Didion is afraid of now is losing her memories of her daughter. That process, partly the ordinary effects of age on the brain and partly the erasure that memory always undergoes, is the true focus of the book – not of Quintana, but of Joan. Didion is aware that the dark days heralded by the Blue Nights – even darker than the hospital vigils, the various diagnoses, the funerals and interments of ashes – are not yet upon her. That there is something worse to come, which is not pain but the absence of pain, horrifies and depresses Didion. And well it should.

Quintana’s cry as a five-year-old – “Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep” – is a frightening one: the absolute negation of parenthood. There isn’t any way to hold our children back from peering into the abyss, but the very nature of parenthood is to protect, defend and nurture. The complication is that our children are often adults before we know it: we become the children in their stead. “How could I not still need that child with me?” writes Didion, in a plea that is also a complaint about abandonment. The subtext is It’s not fair. Why isn’t there anyone to look after me now that I am old? This wasn’t supposed to happen. The real theme of Blue Nights is not death or the accompanying guilt of its survivors; it is the disorientation it leaves behind.

Didion occasionally breaks into her memories to address the reader directly as “you”, in the intimacy of grief. It is the language she should be using to her friends, but cannot. This confessional attitude is the familiar one we associate with therapy, the conversation that provides “resolution” and allows us to “move on”. But what Didion is saying is that she has not emerged from the events after all. Worse, she is now attached to the memory of her memories, in a tormenting meta-cognitive loop.

Ultimately, her daughter’s life and death have undone Didion. She tries to take refuge in her role as writer, as she always has: Didion finds herself correcting her child’s letters and poetry, even after the girl is dead; she dedicates a chapter to explaining how her writing style has been changed by tragedy.

The inadequacy of her old life mimics the other gaps between expectation and reality she experiences. And it is replicated in the reading experience: we still have no clue what the real relationship between the two women was like. Blue Nights merely repeats the awful lesson of old age: Some day you will have to pay for everything you love.

What Didion is really advocating is mindfulness. This is problematic. Consciousness is one thing, but at its most extreme point – the obsessive, archaeological, raking over of memories once someone has died – it becomes autism. In the present, we have to distinguish between what is significant and what is background noise: the alternative is endless grieving, and that ends in insanity. What is most disturbing is that Didion seems to prefer the Blue Nights to the daylight: they mean she can hold onto her daughter.