A Questionable Haziness

“What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—

“xx,” he said.

“xxx,” she said.

How she:

How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx—

How he, and also she—”

So begins chapter nineteen of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. “The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996,” Didion explains. “I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” The symbols that anticipated words to come were not random, she says, but were “arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

“I supposed th[e] process [of writing over the arrangements] to be like writing music,” Didion continues. “I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. All I know now is that writing, or whatever it is that I was doing when I could proceed on no more than ‘xxx’ and ‘xxxx,’ whatever it was I was doing when I imagined myself hearing the music, 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 encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it as frailty.”

This admission dovetails with two scenes from Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the twelve months following the sudden death of her husband John Dunne.

In the first scene, Didion recalls her birthday on December 5, 2003, some forty years after she and Dunne were married and only twenty-five days before he suffered a fatal heart attack:

I remember [my] last present from John. … Snow had begun falling in New York around ten that morning and by evening seven inches had accumulated, with another six due. I remember snow avalanching off the slate roof at St. James’ Church across the street. … Before dinner John sat by the fire in the living room and read to me out loud. The book from which he read was a novel of my own, A Book of Common Prayer [published in 1977], which he happened to have in the living room because he was rereading it to see how something worked technically. The sequence he read out loud was one in which Charlotte Douglas’s husband Leonard pays a visit to the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, and lets her know that what is happening to the country her family runs will not end well. The sequence is complicated (this was in fact the sequence John had meant to reread to see how it worked technically), broken by other action and requiring the reader to pick up the undertext in what Leonard Douglas and Grace Strasser-Mendana say to each other. “Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

In the second scene, not quite twelve months later, Didion recalls a writing assignment she completed for the New York Review of Books in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election:

In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it because there was no one to read it. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You’re a professional. Finish the piece. … When I checked the piece for publication I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong. I told myself that this was temporary, part of the mobilization problem, further evidence of those cognitive deficits that came with either stress or grief, but I remained unsettled. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?

If these disclosures about her writing process cast a certain light on the aesthetics of Didion’s work, in what ways do they particularly illuminate the aesthetics of Blue Nights?

John Dunne was Didion’s first reader and fact-checker, as well as a voice of what seems to have been deep appreciation and reliable encouragement. Even though, as she reveals in Blue Nights, Didion was once able to write almost without thought of it, Dunne was nearby, as in Magical Thinking, both to amend the lapses of thought that left her work shot through with factual errors and to devote his own thoughts to the ways in which her literary skills left him in awe. In a formal sense, then, Blue Nights inevitably internalises the content of its predecessor: its architecture is an outgrowth of the events related in Magical Thinking.

Following on from Magical Thinking, Blue Nights does not revisit the death of John Dunne. It focuses instead on the death of Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana, in 2005, and, more broadly, on “illness [and] the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.” But Dunne’s death appears in every sentence, as the absence of his corrections and appraisals leaves the prose in a shape it presumably would not have taken if he had still been alive at the time of writing. The Year of Magical Thinking thus offers a prospective explication of the aesthetic that governs Blue Nights, while Blue Nights retrospectively recasts Magical Thinking as a licence with which to explain away its own errors, infelicities, and awkwardnesses, and to even transform them into aesthetic virtues.

One result of all this is a hazy, elliptical style which combines the two stylistic trends Didion identifies in her own work — the insistent forward momentum of “sketching in a rhythm” and the conscious encouragement of the “difficulty [of] laying words on the page” — and suggests an intensification of the “frailty” she sees emerging. This style manifests in Didion’s repeated questioning of herself and of the origins of the world in which she now finds herself. By my guess, somewhere between one fifth and one quarter of all the sentences in Blue Nights take the form of direct but largely unanswerable questions, and questions about questions and the significance of asking them. Consider some early examples. From page seven:

The stephanotis.

Was that another sentimental choice?

Did [Quintana] remember the stephanotis?

Is that why she wanted it, is that why she wove it into her braid?

From pages nine and ten:

Why then did I feel so sharp a sense of betrayal when I exchanged my California driver’s license for one issued by New York? Wasn’t that actually a straightforward enough transaction? Your birthday comes around, your license needs renewing, what difference does it make where you renew it? What difference does it make that you have had this single number on your license since it was assigned to you at age fifteen-and-a-half by the state of California? Wasn’t there always an error on that driver’s license anyway? An error you knew about? Didn’t that license say you were five-foot-two? When you knew perfectly well you were at best… five-foot-one-and-three-quarters?

Why did I make so much of the driver’s license?

What was that about?

Did giving up the California license say that I would never again be fifteen-and-a-half?

Would I want to be?

Or was the business with the license just one more case of ‘the apparent inadequacy of the precipitating event’?

From page eleven:

‘The hair, the golf, and the canary’ had each been assigned an exaggerated value… but why? Dr. Menninger himself asks this question, although only rhetorically: ‘But why should such extravagantly exaggerated over-estimations and incorrect evaluations exist?’ Did he imagine that he had answered the question simply by raising it? Did he think that all he had to do was formulate the question and then retreat into a cloud of theoretical psychoanalytic references? Could I seriously have construed changing my driver’s license from California to New York as an experience involving ‘severed emotional bonds’?

Did I seriously see it as loss?

Did I truly see it as separation?

Or consider other, later examples, from pages chosen at random. On page eighty-four: “A question occurs to me: Did she emphasize ‘new’ when she mentioned ‘the new problem’? Was she suggesting that there were also ‘old’ problems, undetailed, problems with which she was for the moment opting not to burden us?” On page ninety-two: “When we noticed her confusions did we consider our own?” On page one hundred and fifty-two: “Did anyone use the word ‘syncope’? Did anyone use the words ‘pre-syncope symptoms’?” These sharp sentences all possess something akin to the rhythm of Didion’s more confident writing — “How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx” — but they lack the directness of that writing because, as unanswered questions, they render opaque our view of a life that declarative sentences would render starkly but possibly falsely.

With each unanswered question, Didion affirms an unwillingness to commit decisively to a particular view of the events of her life. With each unanswered question, she traces the course of those events while also leaving them shrouded in doubt. With each unanswered question, Didion hedges her bets. But what else can she do? On the one hand, those questions are a blessing, an escape route from compositional paralysis. They allow her to gesture towards the facts of her life after having been robbed of the scrutiny of her lifelong fact-checker. On the other hand, those questions are a curse, an impediment to the usual directness of her diction. They drain her prose of the steely confidence it displayed when she wrote it in the company of a lifelong admirer who would read it aloud to reminder her of her own capabilities. If Didion allows Dunne’s death to occupy only the background of Blue Nights, Dunne’s absence nevertheless reaches into the foreground by touching the form of the book — the stringing together of sentences — and repeatedly calling attention to itself with each one of these: ?

Editor? Editor?

The last few weeks have offered some stellar coverage of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights — read Mary-Kay Wilmers, read Cathleen Schine, read Matthew Specktor, read the Didion interviews by Emma Brockes and Boris Kachka — but then, to spoil the party, there’s the coverage of the book in Australia, and particularly the review by Andrew Riemer in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. These two Fairfax publications aspire to be the national papers of record, each one a snapshot of the best local analysis of current events and discourse, and Riemer, usually a reliably good essayist, is the Herald‘s chief book reviewer. Yet what Riemer has written, and what Fairfax has published, is a report of Blue Nights which is labelled as a review but which is so poorly written — so evasive, repetitive, and unspecific — that it leads me to suspect that Riemer hasn’t actually read the book he purports to review.

Here’s the review in question. It runs to 900 words. The first 300 words comprise a summary of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a precursor to Blue Nights. The next 150 words comprise a summary of the circumstances in which Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, the difficult months following the death of her daughter Quintana, which now occupy the foreground of Blue Nights. At this halfway point of the review, however, Riemer still hasn’t mentioned Blue Nights itself: Quintana’s death is folded into his coverage of The Year of Magical Thinking. Only after 550 words does he mention that Blue Nights is “an account of the illness and death of Quintana” — that’s after he expresses moral misgivings about The Year of Magical Thinking and after he discusses its stage adaptation — and then, almost two-thirds of the way into his review, he devotes only one paragraph to a description and evaluation of the book he is reviewing. At 154 words, it makes up just seventeen per cent of the entire review:

Didion’s skill is as evident in her new book as it was six years ago when she was working on The Year of Magical Thinking. The form and style are identical. This account of Quintana’s death, coming as it did at a time when Dunne’s sudden death was still raw and immediate, is surrounded by Didion’s memories: her marriage; the years during which the couple worked on screenplays; Quin-tana’s childhood; the fate of relatives, friends and their children. A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking. There is, in addition, a new note sounded here: the panic of old age, the suspicion that both body and mind are decaying, the awareness that the familiar life — the people you had known and loved — has come to an end.

In my experience with book reviews and book reports, there are three key flaws that suggest that a writer hasn’t actually read the book they’re writing about.

First: an absence of quotes from the book itself. Despite his remarks on “Didion’s skill” and on “[t]he form and style” of Blue Nights, Riemer does not use even one of his 900 words to quote Didion so that she might speak for herself, relying instead on paraphrasing and summarisation.

Second: a disproportionate focus on authorial biography and historical context, combined with a tendency towards contextual repetition, at the expense of a focus on the book. One-third of Riemer’s review of Blue Nights is a summary of The Year of Magical Thinking. One-third of the review is a summary of the context in which that book was published and adapted. Of the remaining one-third, half consists of the paragraph quoted above and half consists of Riemer’s repeated misgivings about Didion’s work combined with his repeated acknowledgement of her stylistic gifts. “[S]peaking here personally,” he writes, “I think the choice [to write publicly about the death of her husband John in The Year of Magical Thinking] was questionable.” “As I have said,” he continues, “Didion’s skill, sensitivity and intelligence go some way towards redeeming this book. …  I cannot, however, banish my sense of uneasiness.” Didion is a brave and stylistically skillful writer but her choice of subject matter makes Riemer uneasy: he repeats this notion three times in his review. Whether the stirring of such uneasiness might be part of Didion’s aesthetic project in Blue Nights — whether she is carefully preying on some innate voyeurism in her readers in a way that calls attention to it — doesn’t seem to occur to Riemer, much less to add complexity to his existing moral misgivings.

Third: factual errors which suggest that the writer has relied on his or her memory of an event rather than consulting a record of it. Riemer, as quoted above, has this to say of the adoption of Quintana: “A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking.” Now here’s Didion “hint[ing] at” Quintana’s adoption, at the end of chapter ten of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I’d call it a lot more than just a hint:

In 1964 and 1965, when we were living in the gate house with the beach and the peacocks but could not afford even to tip the parking boys at restaurants, let alone eat in them, John and I used to park on the street on Canon and charge dinner at The Bistro. We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old. They had given us Sidney Korshak’s corner banquette and placed her carrier on the table, a centrepiece. At the courthouse that morning she had been the only baby, even the only child; all the other adoptions that day had seemed to involve adults adopting one another for tax reasons.

Other flaws are added spice. Didion’s career as an esteemed essayist and political analyst falls by the wayside — you’d never know from Riemer’s review that she has written anything other than screenplays and The Year of Magical Thinking — and the last word goes not to Didion, nor even to anyone writing about Didion, but to Ludwig Wittgenstein, halfheartedly invoked. Riemer’s review of Blue Nights offers no sense of Blue Nights beyond the barest consideration of its subject and the fact that Riemer is unsettled by it. You won’t get a taste of Didion’s own words; you’ll only get an overlong survey of The Year of Magical Thinking and a factually erroneous one at that. The whole review smacks of the sense that this writer has written about a book that he has only read about, rather than a book that he has read directly and with care.

It’s possible that Riemer wrote something closer to 1,500 words before some senseless editor axed the better part of his review and ripped out a fistful of Didion quotes for good measure. For Riemer’s sake, I certainly hope that’s the case, not that the rest of us would be any better off. This sort of review does a disservice to everyone associated with it: Didion’s work isn’t given the respect of careful consideration, readers who may or may not turn to that work are not given any sense of it, Riemer looks a fool for attaching his name to something so underdeveloped, and the Sydney Morning Herald tarnishes its own prestige by pretending that this sort of writing deserves a place in a paper of record. Can’t Australia do better than this?


The Kingdom Crumbles

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” is a line, from the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, when I was in fact a child and nobody died. Of course people did die, but they were either very old or died unusual deaths, died while rafting on the Stanislaus or loading a shotgun or doing 95 drunk: death was construed as either a “blessing” or an exceptional case, the dramatic instance on which someone else’s (never our own) story turned. Illness, in that kingdom where I and most people I knew lingered long past childhood, proved self-limiting. Fever of unknown etiology signaled only the indulgence of a week in bed. Chest pains, investigated, revealed hypochondria.

As time passed it occurred to many of us that our benign experience was less than general, that we had been to date blessed or charmed or plain lucky, players on a good roll, but by that time we were busy: caught up in days that seemed too full, too various, too crowded with friends and obligations and children, dinner parties and deadlines, commitments and overcommitments. “You can’t imagine how it is when everyone you know is gone,” someone I knew who was old would say to me, and I would nod, uncomprehending, yes I can, I can imagine; would even think, God forgive me, that there must be a certain peace in outliving all debts and claims, in being known to no one, floating free. I believed that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see. I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong. I had failed to imagine, I had not understood.

Joan Didion
‘After Henry’