Positions of Privilege
This begins the first of six writers on Blue Nights.
on Joan Didion’s Blue Nights.
Joan Didion © Ed Wexler
The Los Angeles Review of Books gives its pages this week to discussions of Joan Didion on the occasion of her latest book, Blue Nights. Didion, an icon of literary L.A. despite living in New York much of her life, wrote in 1976 that “[t]o shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.” That attention to style, structure, perspective, and meaning animates these essays by Meghan Daum, Susan Straight, Amy Wilentz, Richard Rayner, Amy Ephron, and today, Matthew Specktor, who grew up around the corner when Didion lived in Brentwood.
Alfred A. Knopf, November 2011. 208 pp.
Joan Didion is, as we know, a cool customer. Long before The Year of Magical Thinking, in which a social worker calls her just that, we understood Didion to be cool in every sense of the word. Whatever was happening behind those bug-eyed sunglasses, within that frail frame, the author’s relentless arrangement of information — the research, the reshuffling — kept hot feeling in line. This was true in Play It As It Lays, where the institutionalized Maria Wyeth’s separation from her young daughter exists mostly between parentheses, and it was true in The Year of Magical Thinking, where the immediacy of loss is often cut with diagnostic material: W.H. Auden, observations about grief, and observations about those observations (“the question of self-pity”) interceding before anyone gets wet. There is a moment in Blue Nights, in one sense The Year of Magical Thinking’s logical extension but in another sense unlike any book in Didion’s corpus, that seems to me specifically revealing: leaving a physical therapy session where she’s been working out alongside members of the New York Yankees (!), Didion remarks upon her declining capacities. “My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether,” she writes. “Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.”
“The correct stance?” It seems an odd thing to be fretting about in the midst of a meditation on aging and grief, but, in a way, Didion’s entire body of work has been about this positioning: “the attitude, the tone.” These things have always been primary in Didion — the words themselves have never been permitted to violate or distress the stance too much — which is frankly why a good portion of it doesn’t interest me much. It’s also why Blue Nights is so forceful. On the one hand, her cognitive confidence — or at least her cognitive capacity — is as powerful as it ever was. The book’s surpassing lucidity (its title, seemingly generic, is in fact perfectly chosen, referring as it does to a specific set of latitudinal conditions in which “the actual light … becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres”) owes much to the tension between that cognitive strength and the cracking, at last, of the writer’s attitudes. Neither nakedly confessional nor coldly composed, Blue Nights is startling in its effect, and remarkable even within the context of Didion’s impressive shelf. (Just because the work doesn’t interest me doesn’t mean I haven’t read a lot of it, or that I don’t think it’s any good.) Blue Nights is heartbreaking, in a word, and if it isn’t among her most exacting performances — in fact it contains a few moments of unusual clumsiness — it may yet be among her finest.