Last Thursday evening I accompanied a group of ten students to Washington D.C. to hear Joan Didion talk about her new book, Blue Nights. The event took place in the Avalon Theatre, a charming old movie theatre with a tall glowing marquis. I hadn’t read the book yet, but I brought a copy with me that I was hoping to have her inscribe to my wife, Jess, who turned me on to Didion ten years ago.
Perched precariously in a tall director’s chair at the front of theatre below the big white screen, Didion characterized the writing in Blue Nights as the rawest and most unpolished of her career.
Her interviewer scoffed at the idea that the prose was anything less than purest spun gold, but Didion wouldn’t take the compliment and bluntly reassured her, as she did several times over the course of the hour-long interview, that look, any good writer knows these things about her own work.
Back home, reading the freshly inscribed copy of Blue Nights, I am reminded of advice I read once in a driving manual, something about how to avoid serious injury if you should find your vehicle headed straight for a telephone pole or tree: angle the vehicle left-of-center so that the car is dealt a glancing blow.
Again and again, Didion seems set on a crash-course for a head-on collision with despair over the fact that her daughter, her only child, is dead. But each time she swerves.
When asked point blank by the interviewer, and, later, by well-meaning audience members how she was coping, how she had managed to keep it together—“unravel” was the word used more than once by her interrogators—she confessed, “I’m a good denier…so are most of my friends.”
The more of Blue Nights I read the more her confession made sense. However, the book doesn’t read like someone in denial. The word “elliptical” comes mind.
According to the OED, elliptical has three senses: 1.) The elongated, conical shape a planet describes in its orbit; 2.) Pertaining to grammar and style, writing that is coy or unfocused; the writer doesn’t directly address the subject at hand; 3.) Omission for the sake of brevity or convenience.
Didion never uses the word “elliptical” in the book; in fact, a quick Google Book search of her most beloved nonfiction works only turns up one instance of the word—in her previous National Book Award-winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a wrenching account of the year in which her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana, both die.
She uses the word when describing the moment when she tells Jose, her housekeeper, that her John has died sitting at the dinner table.
“When I first told him what had happened he had not understood. Clearly I was not the ideal teller of this story, something about my version had been at once too offhand and too elliptical, something in my tone had failed to convey the central fact in the situation (I would encounter the same failure later when I had to tell Quintana), but by the time Jose saw the blood he understood.”
Her use of the word here suggests that Didion, one of our most stylish writers, accustomed to telling things slant, found her command of the declarative to have atrophied.
In Blue Nights, Didion, aware that the declarative is not her strength, and knowing that it is not suited for this project, is intentionally elliptical. It is filled with elegant digressions that seem to be leading us too far from the gravitational center, so far that we might never be able to get back.
She begins many of the short chapters in the book with an artifact she has uncovered in her apartment (a photograph, a book given to her by her daughter, a memory of Quintana’s wedding or a tableaux from early motherhood), and leads us on a meandering associative jaunt through decades of memories.
In a passage she read at the D.C. event, she runs across a photo of Sophia Loren in a back issue of the New York Review of Books, which triggers a reverie that touches on the scandal of Loren’s marriage to Carol Ponti, which triggers a reflection on the way women used to be, the way they used to present themselves, which reminds her of the women at her daughter’s christening in their Chanel suits and David Webb bracelets, then to the special Minton plates that they used for the reception, and then to a memory of Quintana weeding the clay tennis courts behind their house, and then to her stuffed bunny which was accidently left behind in the Royal Hawaiian hotel, and finally to the point of this whole digression, Quintana’s reaction, which was to imagine how lucky bunny rabbit was to be left behind in Hawaii.
These aren’t uncontrollable senile digressions. They’re more like balletic evasions, elegant swerves.
But experienced readers of Didion won’t see the style as much of a departure—they’ll see it as Didion-esque. It’s just that the subject she is working with, the problem being delicately circumscribed, is squarely her own dissolution, rather than someone else’s.
There are some who are calling this book “minor Didion,” but I think that you have to look at it in the context of her entire career.
In the first three acts of Didion’s career she bore witness to the dissolution of American culture by interviewing pitiful teenage runways who flocked to the Haight, members of Charles Manson’s harem, and by observing innumerable moments of what she called “inductive irony” (Don McLean’s “American Pie” being played in a grocery store in El Salvador comes to mind).
Now seventy-six years old, beginning her fourth and final act, she finds herself interrogating herself, and through this process she deduces that it’s not so much her daughter’s death that she is preoccupied with but her own.
There’s nothing minor about what she accomplishes here. On display is a master at the end of her career using her skill in Scheherazade fashion, not just to delay the inevitable, but to reassert the philosophy that she announced years ago in the White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”