More than 30 years ago, Joan Didion channeled the dark heart of the American zeitgeist in her dazzling, kaleidoscopic essay “The White Album,” a chronicle of the collective cultural breakdowns of the late 1960s that became an instant classic. It included a portrait of one of the Manson murderers, an account of an evening with Doors singer Jim Morrison, and the story of Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton, bleeding from a gunshot wound as he stood in a hospital lobby, being told he could not see a doctor until he produced his insurance card. The essay consists of a series of flash-cuts among these scenes. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote. What she meant was that, without realizing it, we human beings are constantly simplifying, clarifying, and ordering what is happening around us—or trying to.
Didion articulates the fragility of meaning as well as any writer alive. In her work—more than 40 years’ worth of essays, criticism, and fiction—she not only attempts to tell stories, parse evidence, and present the truth of experience (all these are the basic job descriptions of a writer), but to call attention, all the while, to how stories are made, to the variety of ends to which evidence can be turned, and to the complexity of “truth” itself. Her subjects have ranged from an actress in a hospital after a nervous breakdown (in her 1970 novel Play It as It Lays) to Bill Clinton on the campaign trail (in a 2001 essay collection, Political Fictions). Always, she returns to California, to her “bad nerves,” to the cognitive disorder of a writer’s life.
Whatever she writes, whether fiction or documentary, Didion peels back the skin of comfortable meanings to expose the blood and sinew beneath. In the hands of a French philosopher, this project might yield something dense and impenetrable. But as a writer, Didion is more akin to George Orwell than to Michel Foucault. Like Orwell, she moved from journalism to a kind of essay writing that takes the body politic and the common culture very seriously.
Because her essays often include her as a first-person character, they can easily be mistaken for memoirs. Her last book, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), recounted the grave illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, which coincided with the death of Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. But this was not a memoir of grief—that is, Didion was not preoccupied with assembling shards of memory into a form that had an identifiable crisis, a journey, and a resolution—so much as a meditation on the way grief exposes the precariousness of the human mind.
In Blue Nights, Didion returns to her daughter’s life and death (Quintana died after Didion finished The Year of Magical Thinking), to their connections and disconnections. The subject matter may suggest that this book is a sequel. But for Joan Didion, the apparent subject of her work is never the real subject. Her aim here is not to establish a narrator’s identity by plotting it on a relational matrix, but to dismantle narrative and tear apart identity—to be more precise, to call attention to how we labor to make workable stories and characters, to the way we walk on suspension cables over mad seas.
Didion deals with her own madness not just as metaphor but as condition. “The White Album” includes a long excerpt from her 1968 psychiatric report, and in The Year of Magical Thinking she recounts the flights of her mind after her husband’s death, including the moment she consented to an autopsy believing it would reveal a simple problem that could be fixed, and her discomfort at throwing out her husband’s shoes, believing he would need them when he returned.
This internal turmoil is often not apparent. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion describes an exchange at the hospital where her husband was rushed after his heart attack. A social worker approaches her with a doctor. “ ‘He’s dead, isn’t he,’ I heard myself say to the doctor. The doctor looked at the social worker. ‘It’s okay,’ the social worker said. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer.’ ” The reader of Didion’s prose could easily make the same assessment. The essay as a form is meant to make sense of disparate images and experiences through unifying ideas, structure, and voice, and she is probably our greatest living essayist.
Yet it’s rather plain that the meaning, engagement, and order exhibited in Didion’s work are a response to an underlying experience of meaninglessness, detachment, and disorder. I say it’s plain because she tells us so—and has, as the years have passed, become increasingly explicit and urgent on the point. “The White Album” has an undercurrent of Didion’s own madness, but even as she draws attention to the arbitrary and imperfect way in which that order is imposed, she dishes off the question of whether she was mad, or just lived in a mad time. “By way of comment,” she writes after reproducing her psychiatric report, “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
In Magical Thinking, she drops the veil somewhat, and even begins to suggest that her own efforts to impose control have somehow kept from her the underlying truth, that her work has established a kind of “impenetrable polish.” And yet, she confesses, “I need more than words to find the meaning. . . . I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.” It’s as though her writing has obscured as much as it has revealed—to herself most of all. She’s trying to write her way out of the box her writing has put her in.
Blue Nights is even more wrenching in this regard. The narrative regularly dissolves into a series of questions—in one passage I counted 16 in a row. The book is the opposite of the victory lap one might expect from an aging writer. Didion is poking and prodding at her fears and shortcomings—as a mother, a writer, and a human being.
“When I began writing these pages,” she explains, “I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them.”
This assignment, on its own, would have been tough enough—especially given the complexities of Didion’s relationship with her daughter, who was adopted and suffered from an unspecified illness. (Though Didion does not provide a great deal of detail about the nature of Quintana’s problems, she does mention her daughter’s “quicksilver changes” and the variety of diagnoses thrown at her, including, eventually, “borderline personality disorder.”)
But Didion discovered, as she wrote, that her “actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children.” The “actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death.” The person who has refused to engage in such contemplation is Didion herself. At one point she describes going over the bric-a-brac in her apartment—saved baby teeth, an old school uniform. “In theory,” Didion writes, “these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”
This passage is typical in the way that it digs into the deepest and most difficult layers. And it shows the juxtaposition of Didion’s disordering questions with her trenchant voice. There’s something hypnotic about her prose, and so, while she exposes us to these veins of inquiry, we are also calmed and comforted. She is an Akido sensei, turning all the disorder she summons into force and energy for greater order. Except that sometimes it feels as though she’s doing the reverse—using whatever order her writing creates to convey a sense of the larger chaos.
What makes Blue Nights so exciting—and so viscerally troubling—is that, at age 75, Didion is not just reckoning with the epic questions of human parenthood. (Why do we have children? How do we hurt them? How do we live with their vulnerability? How do we face our own frailty and death?) She is also using her craft to direct a withering inquiry about herself and her use of craft as she nears the end of her life. Blue Nights is Didion’s attempt to pull off her own writer’s skin and show us what’s underneath.
But even as she flays herself for the ways she has smoothed over experience in the past, she cannot stop. She cannot turn off the voice, the rhythm. Reading Blue Nights is like watching that mime routine in which the performer chokes herself with one hand and tries to save herself with the other. It almost seems that if you finish the book feeling satisfied, Didion will have failed.
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Joshua Wolf Shenk's essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, and other magazines. He is the author of Lincoln's Melancholy (2006) and a forthcoming book about collaboration and creativity.
Reviewed: "Blue Nights" by Joan Didion, Vintage, 2011.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Phil Roeder