:: Article

Luminous hours

By Max Liu.


Blue Nights, Joan Didion, 4th Estate 2011

The final chapter of Joan Didion’s new memoir echoes the opening of her previous one. “When we lose that sense of the possible we lose it fast,” she writes in Blue Nights. The Year of Magical Thinking began, “Life changes fast.” The new sentence is fine but the old one rings truer and the same distinction applies to the two books.

Following the death of Quintana, her adopted daughter, the recently-widowed Didion resolved to “maintain momentum’ until frailty exposed her folly. Momentum is an unlikely problem for a writer whose prose fizzes with repetition and builds to poetic denouements, but Blue Nights is fast in the social sense too. Hollywood friends, famous hotels, exclusive schools, the French Riviera and Hawaii provide a ritzy backdrop. Didion, however, “will not easily cop” to the charge of privilege:

“Privilege” is a judgement.
“Privilege” is an opinion.
“Privilege” is an accusation.

To regard Quintana thus, she suggests, is “uncharitable” because of “what she endured.” Didion is profound on the “muddled impulses that go hand in hand with adoption,” but in a world where the privately-educated monopolise influence and opportunity, lack of charity isn’t something to which readers should easily cop. “Privilege” is having the means to remember that there are higher things than privilege. Her defensiveness is ill-timed, unedifying.

Martin Amis calls Didion, “the poet of California.” Her late style is spare, sentences stand as their own stanzas/paragraphs, mesmerising rhythms propel her attempts to reckon with grief through words. In Blue Nights, she reads Auden, Eliot, Stevens and Quintana’s schoolgirl verse makes well-judged appearances. The child lists “Mom’s sayings” but Didion appropriates things her daughter said – “Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it” – and her questions – “Where did the morning went?” – acquire significance with hindsight. Lines recur, sometimes within inverted commas, sometimes in italics, sometimes in standard type, which makes us consider the fluidity of recollection, reverie and its representation. Quintana’s jarring use of “exactly” is, knowingly or not, emulated by Didion in one of several daughter/mother echoes.

“I don’t know what I think until I write it down,” she famously said. Early in her career she described herself as “inarticulate” before expressing doubts about a generation that invented the term “broken home.” Forty years on, would she use such language? I ask because, while she has always excelled at looking behind her own motivations and others’, her inquiries here lack their usual incision. “Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?” Give yourself a break, I wanted to say. “Did we ask her (Quintana) to assume responsibility before she had any way of doing so?” The author might answer herself twenty pages later when she’s being more acute: “As adults we lose memory of the gravity and terrors of childhood.”

From hospital windows, Didion watches ice floes on the East River and on the Hudson. America’s decline may be exaggerated but is there, in the freezing drifts that surround Manhattan, the crumbling of an empire? Are the blue lights – “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning” – yet to come or have they receded? “You may see nothing still to be lost,” is her penultimate sentence but, as with the culture Didion has documented for half-a-century, there remains lots to be lost and lots to be saved. For all its faults, this is not a book that you want to end.


Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 8th, 2011.