Joan Didion’s Blue Nights isn’t about grieving for her daughter. It’s about a mother’s regrets.
“She was already a person,” Didion observes now, of the young Quintana. “I could never afford to see that.” With hindsight, Didion traces a very different narrative arc. From an early age Quintana was susceptible to “quicksilver” changes of mood, had night visions of a threatening specter she called “the Broken Man,” and, at 5, called Camarillo, a state psychiatric facility, to ask what she needed to do if she went crazy. “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?” Didion asks. “Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?”
She never answers these questions definitively—what parent could? A tragic early death changes the way you read every element of a child’s life. But she does offer another telling scene. After Quintana’s death, Didion found herself reading an old school journal. Quintana had written about Keats’ poem “Endymion,” and detailed her fear of the idea that one might “pass into nothingness,” as Keats put it. As Didion was reading, she says, she “appallingly” began correcting the sentences. A preoccupation with the question of how to tell the story—with surface, not content—allowed her to sidestep the devastatingly sad import of what her daughter had written.
Blue Nights is looser and less polished than most of Didion’s work. As she notes, she couldn’t hear the “music” of the sentences (there’s a wonderful passage about how she used to write fluidly by ear, like a composer) and “for a while… I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness.” It makes sense that Didion would have wanted to find a “direct” style to tell this story, because the story is about how style becomes a tactic that prevents you from being in the moment. And while Blue Nights is a strange, imperfect book, it is also indelible, and for this reason it earns its odd space in Didion’s canon: She is our finest living cultural essayist, not only because she is an iconoclastic thinker with one of the finest prose styles around, but because her writing taps into one of postwar life’s most vital contradictions. It dismantles myths and self-mythologizes at the same time. It exposes a generation’s narcissism while at times embodying it.
If we tell ourselves stories to live, Didion underscores, we also tell ourselves false stories in order to live. To skirt the paradoxes of this work—to focus simply, as some critics have, on how “heartbreaking” it is—is to diminish the complexity of Didion’s mind. Here after all is a writer who has described “the willful transgression implicit in the act of writing” (do note, as she would say, that word willful), a writer who has said that the act of writing is like deciding “to seize the stage.” In Blue Nights a powerful case is made that writing of regret cannot ever be a perfect performance. It cannot gesture toward redemption, or undo what has been done. Art cannot make order out of the wrong that is a daughter dying before her mother. All it can do is express the dissonance of it. As Didion writes, disturbingly: “Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.