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The Last Thing She Wanted

Kevin Stevens

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, Fourth Estate, 188 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0007432929

On the evening of December 30th, 2003, the writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion returned to their New York apartment after visiting their daughter, Quintana, in the intensive care unit of Beth Israel North in Manhattan. Quintana had been rushed to hospital on Christmas morning, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. She had been put into an induced coma and placed on life support. She was her parents’ only child, adopted in 1966 on the day of her birth.

Back home, Didion built a fire. Prepared a drink for her husband. Started dinner. As she mixed a salad, she half-listened as Dunne spoke of the Great War and its critical place in twentieth century history (he was reading Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin). When he suddenly stopped speaking, she turned and found him slumped and motionless, the victim of a massive, fatal heart attack.

The two were exceptionally close. Married for forty years, for most of that time they had worked side by side, often on collaborative projects. “We were together twenty-four hours a day,” Didion wrote. “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him.” By all accounts their relationship was free of professional competitiveness, though they shared identical literary pursuits: both prominent novelists and essayists; both high-profile contributors to leading literary publications, including The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Together they travelled the world on journalism assignments and on location for the many films they worked on. They read and critiqued each other’s every word, and co-wrote several successful screenplays, including the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born and, five years later, the underrated True Confessions, adapted from Dunne’s novel and starring Robert de Niro and Robert Duvall.

Within days of the tragedy, Didion had written: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” These words would become the first lines of her next book, an examination of the meaning of her husband’s death and a chronicle of grief observed as she adjusted to life without John and continued to care for Quintana, who recovered from her illness only to be struck by a massive haematoma while returning to Los Angeles in March 2004, days after her father’s funeral. By the end of that year, Didion had completed the manuscript. In late August 2005, a month before publication, Quintana died of pancreatitis. Didion decided not to revise, and The Year of Magical Thinking was published without reference to Quintana’s death.

The book was a huge success, a National Book Award winner and New York Times bestseller, which earned generous reviews, expanded her readership significantly and resonated with people from all over the world. It dissected a year in Didion’s life that, as she put it, “cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself”. It is a brilliant and convincing analysis of grief but also a story of loss of control in a person who had always been in control, about the magical thinking of denial that can overtake even a supremely rational mind.

For Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking and its success were therapeutic. A week after placing Quintana’s ashes alongside Dunne’s in a wall of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, she flew to Boston to begin a promotional tour. She continued travelling until she grasped “that just going to and from the airport might be insufficient”. It was then that she met producer Scott Rudin and director David Hare and agreed to adapt the book as a one-character play, which would be performed by Vanessa Redgrave to consistent acclaim on Broadway and at London’s National Theatre. (Redgrave’s own daughter, Natasha Richardson, died tragically during this run, life mirroring art in a way that added another level of poignancy to the production.) That success is ongoing. Book and play continue to engage audiences worldwide.

Yet Quintana’s death remained for Didion unfinished business. At least until now. Her husband’s death had led to a contemplation of grief. Her daughter’s, less of a surprise perhaps but an even fiercer blow, all the harsher for leaving her completely on her own, is confronted in Blue Nights, another highly personal reflection on mortality that also explores the meaning of motherhood and aging. Moving back and forth in time, its lean narrative threads highly rhetorical, persistent self-questioning between scenes of birth, marriage and death. It is candid and confessional, sometimes difficult to read, at times marred by self-reference and name-dropping. But there is no denying its power.

In many respects, this new memoir continues where the previous left off. It begins with a memory of Quintana’s wedding in July 2003, five months before her medical crisis and father’s death, and proceeds through a series of reminiscences blended with anguished speculation. There is a similar, even more intense rawness. A willingness to put the author’s most painful doubts about herself on full display. A reassessment of fundamental beliefs about writing and character. Didion wonders how well she raised Quintana, what the adoption meant for both of them, how her writing has been affected, whether the physical and psychological challenges of aging can possibly be handled without the support of her only child.

“When we talk about mortality,” she repeats at key points in the new book, “we are talking about our children.” Blue Nights poses the most fundamental questions facing a woman of Didion’s time and place. Repeated sequences of unanswerable questions roll through the narrative like giant waves, foaming over any attempt at argument:

But when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent?

The rhetoric of Blue Nights, its thought and action, resides in territory familiar to Didion readers: the geographies of California and New York; the intellectual space where perception and reality often clash; the emotional regions where fear and anxiety are forever in the air, like the whine of high-tension electricity lines; where life and culture are fragmentary; where self-knowledge is elusive, if not impossible.

Yet in a significant way these two recent books are markedly different from Didion’s previous work. On the subject of the deaths of John and Quintana she has certainly brought to bear all the skills she has developed over fifty years of writing, skills which place her at the forefront of twentieth century American prose stylists. But the way she questions her assumptions about herself as a writer is not just subject here – it also alters that famous style significantly, and redraws the relationship between style and meaning within her work in a way that begs scrutiny.

The opening chapter of The Year of Magical Thinking closes with this statement of intent:

I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet … this is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.

This is a woman who began developing her writing style at age fifteen by typing out Hemingway stories “to get the rhythms into [her] head”. Who published a series of essays in her twenties and early thirties, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, that captured the fragmentary essence of sixties and seventies American culture in a style perfectly weighted to narrate, as she herself has said, “the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something”. Who wrote several highly charged books about politically complex places – Salvador, Miami, Where I Was From (about California) – that, though carefully researched and underpinned by just the right detail, create in their rhythms and rhetoric shifting patterns of mystery and myth.

Always in Didion, at least before The Year of Magical Thinking, you get that “increasingly impenetrable polish”. Also coolness and a controlling irony expressed in telling repetition, loud pauses, and perfect word choice. Her style is like the playing of Miles Davis: minimalist, continually surprising, unique. In 1977, when she took eleven-year-old Quintana along on her first national book tour, for her novel A Book of Common Prayer, she turned the hectic and unreal swing through airports and television studios into a study of American broadcast discourse, where “nothing one says will alter in the slightest either the form or the length of the conversation”:

We saw air as our element. In Houston the air was warm and rich and suggestive of fossil fuel and we pretended we owned a house in River Oaks. In Chicago the air was brilliant and thin and we pretended we owned the 27th floor of the Ritz. In New York the air was charged and crackling and shorting out with opinions, and we pretended we had some. Everyone in New York had opinions. Opinions were demanded in return ... I began to see the country itself as a projection on air, a kind of hologram, an invisible grid of image and opinion and electronic impulse.

Didion has always been adept at using style to turn pedestrian event into culturally significant symbol. At finding meaning in the least likely places. At using repetition and understatement to create the sense that the subject at hand – slight on the surface, obliquely observed – contains clues to why, as Thomas McGuane puts it, “we are having all this trouble with our republic”. Her sensibility has roots in sixties drift and New Journalism iconoclasm, but refracted through a conservative temperament, not unlike the satirical streak of her contemporary Tom Wolfe, that is partly an expression of her origins: Episcopalian, California old money, daughter of a career army officer. Her style developed out of a peculiar combination of engagé emotion and literary distance, and though the precision of her writing and lucidity of her thought present the American vista in stark relief, her reader is often left with a feeling that what is of most importance is not what has been said but what has been left out.

This dichotomy is most intensely felt in her fiction. Dark and brooding, her novels dramatise the social breakdown and political misdirection delineated in her early essays. Confused central characters, usually women, negotiate puzzling and often dangerous situations, manipulated by elusive and cynical men. Miscommunication abounds. The drama is high but emotion is atrophied. Didion’s protagonists dream about what their lives might be while the detail of their days – social, sexual, familial – unfolds blankly in a style even more terse and elliptical than her nonfiction.

From 1963 to 1984, Didion published a novel every seven years. After Run River, an unsatisfactory debut (“It’s got a lot of sloppy stuff,” she admitted later. “Extraneous stuff. Words that don’t work.”), she brought out a pair of novels in the seventies that matched the power and stylistic density of her nonfiction. Play It As It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer are full, in Michiko Kakutani’s words, of “a pervasive sense of emotional weariness that surfaces in passionless couplings and the rote acting out of expected roles”. Aimless and hollow, their heroes are victims of private history. They yearn for control as they watch their own lives fall apart. In Play It As It Lays the actor and model Maria Wyeth speaks to us from a mental institution where she has landed after a long slide into despair. Her fractured voice, presented in a fine balance of internal monologue and subjective third person, is pitch perfect:

Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.

Didion’s fictive style has more syntactic freedom – or at least a denser, simpler sentence structure that allows greater scope for compressed rhetorical flourish. “The sentences in my nonfiction,” she has said, “are far more complicated than the sentences in my fiction. More clauses. More semicolons. I don’t seem to hear that many clauses when I’m writing a novel.” The woman who had typed out Hemingway stories as a teenager had found, in parataxis, repetition, and clipped dialogue, a suitable and distinctive narrative mode for her tales of contemporary anomie.

Then she upped her game, at least in terms of subject matter. In her final book in this sabbatical series, Democracy, published in 1984, and her next novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, which appeared a dozen years later, individual despair is expanded via plots that mix personal journey with national politics and international intrigue. In these books, the scourge of history turns public, and meaning is even less penetrable. The murky messes of Vietnam and the Iran-Contra affair are backdrops for stories that explore the consequences of the national aberrations she presaged decades earlier, in her landmark essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the late cold spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job.

The confusion and inertia of the typical Didion protagonist have, in these later novels, an added resonance that reflects her expanding political consciousness as America moved through the Reagan years. She and John Gregory Dunne spent two weeks in El Salvador in 1982, at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War, after which she contributed to the New York Review of Books a series of pieces very much shaped by her editor, Robert Silvers (who also urged her to write about American domestic politics). Much of the emphasis of these essays, published in book form a year later as Salvador, was on the unreliability of the US embassy and the mainstream American media. She described, for example, how the embassy depended on Salvadoran newspapers for the weekly body count, which was used in turn by the State Department to make policy decisions, and how American reporters filed their stories using CIA transcripts and versions of events clearly concocted by representatives of the Salvadoran ministry of defence. She also noted the tendency of American officials to disguise unpleasant truths with misleading language:

American diction in this situation tends toward the studied casual, the can-do, as if sheer cool and Bailey bridges could shape the place up. Elliott Abrams told The New York Times in July of 1982 that punishment within the Salvadoran military could be ‘a very important sign that you can’t do this stuff anymore,’ meaning kill the citizens.

Didion’s manipulation of this American brand of newspeak added another layer of irony to her fiction. The action of Democracy takes place in 1975, as America finally disengages from Vietnam. The novel’s central character, Inez Victor, is married to a senator who wants to be president and whose handlers are doing all they can to suppress exposure of the dysfunction of the couple’s family (just as the US is doing its best to forget about southeast Asia). The Last Thing He Wanted, set for the most part in an unspecified Central American country, tells the story of political reporter Elena McMahon, who walks off the 1984 US presidential campaign to do a favour for her father. He is a dealmaker, and it is while acting as his agent in one such deal that she finds herself in the middle of an assassination plot involving American aid to the Contras.

Typical of Didion’s protagonists, Inez and Elena have mastered a “capacity for passive detachment”. They’re good at ignoring their problems. But their personal unhappiness unfolds on a larger stage, and is entwined with political hypocrisy and the failure of democratic action. A great symptom of this failure is hollow discourse. Didion exploits the devices and rhythms of fiction – dialogue, indirect speech, echoic phrasing, metafictional narrators – to meld the aimlessness of her characters with the political consequences of propaganda. The precision and rhythmic subtlety of her own language recreate obfuscation behind a screen of irony.

Some real things have happened lately. For a while we felt rich and then we didn’t. For a while we thought time was money, find the time and the money comes with it. Make money for example by flying the Concorde. Moving fast. Get the big suite, the multi-line telephones, get room service on one, get the valet on two, premium service, out by nine back by one. Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going. Sell Allied Signal, buy Cypress Minerals, work the management plays. Plug into this news cycle, get the wires raw, nod out on the noise. Get me audio, someone was always saying in the nod where we were. Agence Presse is moving this story.

These sentences, the opening lines to The Last Thing He Wanted, create a false feeling of intimacy and a spurious linguistic energy that are sustained throughout the novel. This is America as “invisible grid of image and opinion and electronic impulse”. Likewise, the fragmented psyches of her characters are reproduced in the stuttering attempts of the narrator (“the not quite omniscient author”) to tell the tale. The narrator is constantly interrupting herself, challenging her own version of events, undercutting suspension of disbelief with postmodern asides. Just as, in the world of covert operations, nothing is as it seems, Didion’s rhetoric is aimed at misdirecting the reader, suggesting meaning where none exists. Its purpose is to distance readers from the narrative and, in doing so, to lead them to an appreciation that this distance and the art it takes to create it are the core of the fiction’s authenticity. All else is withheld “behind an increasingly impenetrable polish”.

It is noteworthy that Didion has not published any fiction since The Last Thing He Wanted. The personal tragedies behind her most recent books seem to have led to a suspicion that her famous style, at its most rhetorical in her fiction, is not up to the task of making sense of her grief. As we’ve seen, she states this explicitly at the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking. In that book the tension of her style is now aimed at herself. “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” The literature she turned to after Dunne’s death included Freud, Melanie Klein, Philippe Ariès; The Lancet, the British Medical Journal, The Merck Manual; even Emily Post and a memorial volume from the fiftieth reunion of her husband’s class at Princeton. She quotes from these sources at length as she searches for information about heart failure, the mechanics of grief, rules of behaviour during crisis.

But The Year of Magical Thinking ends up being about the failure of information, and thus the failure of control. The patchwork of technical detail is undermined by rhetoric: repetition, irony, silence at critical moments. Also, there is a network of poetic references that chart an alternate map of feeling, the swarm of suffering and nightmare that underlies the rational search for explanation. Shakespeare, Auden, Eliot, Hopkins, and others are regularly invoked as a kind of “improvised rosary” to provide comfort and set the appropriate mood. Style as meaning is no longer enough. A deep frustration shines through the rhetoric.

Blue Nights goes a step further and uses her most characteristic stylistic devices not to find meaning in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs but to suggest that meaning can’t be found at all. Information is not just questioned – it is baldly acknowledged as futile. There are no references to the medical canon. No studies quoted, even if simply to prove they are inadequate. Didion’s vaunted journalistic impulses have been reduced to a dry and despairing listing of the tests and scans – for Quintana, for herself after her daughter’s death, when her health fails – presented in every case as evidence of the failure of medicine to explain mortality.

Control is gone. And the public world has receded. Circumstances have brought Didion back to personal obsession. But this time with a difference. This time without the confidence that she can depend on her literary powers:

All I know now is that writing ... no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it now as frailty.

This frailty brings fear: “What if I can never again locate the words that work?”

This question is not rhetorical. The pain is real and raw. Finally, this rawness is what we are left with. Blue Nights is an admission that, in the face of tragedy and age, even the finest writing can fail. That the instinct to find meaning in form may not survive the ravages of mortality. That style is not enough; that self-questioning ultimately needs answers, even when there are none.

Yet the poignancy of this very controlled writer so publicly admitting loss of control is deeply compelling. As is her exploration of a writing process new to her – not the calculated shaping of words to create a beautiful object, but a blinder groping after something that is beyond words. An attempt to use language to move beyond language. A heart-rending release of something she had always valued as she exercises a different kind of withholding, a letting go that is beyond what she can express:

I know why we try to keep the dead alive – in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photographs on the table.

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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