Monday, October 15, 2012

The public voice of our frailty (Books - Blue Nights by Joan Didion)

If you read Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion, through writing, relentlessly observes herself in the act of grieving her husband during the year following his sudden death from a heart attack, I imagine you have read, or are thinking about reading, Blue Nights.  Blue Nights, although it is an act of mourning her daughter Quintana, who died scarcely a year after her father, is not just more of the same.  A Year of Magical Thinking was written through the raging storm.  The book is brutal.  Didion is dogged in examining her replacement of ordered thought with irrational and yet sensible struggles to undo the death of her husband - John Gregory Dunne - via special deals she makes with the universe.  In it, she calls less on their life prior to his death, instead replaying the evening of his death over and over.  In Blue Nights, Didion has allowed more time to pass since her daughter's death before writing. Here there is less the feeling of a disaster film shot from the cockpit of a crashing plane, and more the feeling of an invocation.  They are both books of mourning, but in Blue Nights Didion calls on memory to wonder at the life and death of her daughter, to actively feel the pain of two losses - one of Quintana, the other of herself - and to assuage them.  She uses repetition of form not exactly to reign in the emotion, but to structure it, so that the book is a conscious act of creation rather than simply an outpouring of raw grief.  I thought its form evocative of a sestina which, Mary Kinzie's A Poet's Guide to Poetry tells us, is a formal verse structure with 39 lines containing 6 stanzas of six lines whose end words repeat verbatim in the following stanzas in a highly prescribed fashion.  The seventh stanza uses all six end-words, also in a specific way. The repetition creates recurrent sounds, allowing a particular theme to echo as a refrain (as grief does with repeated memories).  The highly stereotyped order, when used well and pitted against complex emotions, creates esthetic tension and that is precisely how it functioned in Blue Nights.

The opening of Blue Nights describes a particular quality of light at a particular time of year, as if summoning it for the reader so that the ritual can begin.
In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.  This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live.  You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming - in fact not at all a warming - yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise.  You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.  The French called this time of day "l'heure bleue."  To the English it was "The gloaming."  The very word "gloaming" reverberates, echoes - the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour - carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.  During the blue night you think the end of day will never come...
Didion is calling forth a mood like a priestess, inviting us into a space she has prepared in a certain way - a space that is right for the ceremony of remembering which she will perform.  Didion tells us what we can expect: we can expect echoes, repetitions.  In invoking a time of year and time of day, Didion calls our attention to time: the passage of time, a time that is fleeting - like the life that passed - a time that seems for a moment like it will not end: like moments in a life prior to disaster, like moments during grieving when it seems that this feeling will never change.  But Didion also tells us that we are not just eavesdropping on an exercise of emotion, but that she has done something with it.  In referencing Chartres and Cerenkov, the terms 'l'heure bleue' and 'the gloaming,' I feel as though some research was performed and some choices made.  We are experiencing a work fashioned out of the experience of a person, but not the experience or the person directly.

 Blue Nights and A Year of Magical Thinking share a certain brilliance in making the banal beautiful.  It is not novel for a parent to think upon the death of a child of the injustice of what has happened.  How it defies the natural order of things.  'Parents should precede children in death, not the other way round.' 
This was never supposed to happen to her, I remember thinking - outraged, as if she and I had been promised a special exemption - in the third of those intensive care units.

By the time she reached the fourth I was no longer invoking [there's that word] this special exemption.

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I just said that, but what does it mean?

All right, of course I can track it, of course you can track it, another way of acknowledging that our children are hostages to fortune, 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 use not to have them?  What it meant to let them go?  Are we talking about the enigma of pledgin ourselves to protect the unprotectable?  About the whole puzzle of being a parent?

Time passes.

Yes, agreed, a banality, of course time passes.

Then why do I say it, why have I already said it more than once?

Have I been saying it the same way I saw I have lived most of my life in California?

Have I been saying it without hearing what I say?

Could it be that I heard it more this way: Time passes, but not so aggressively that anyone notices?  Or even: Time passes, but not for me?  Could it be that I did not figure in either the general nature or the permanence of the slowing, the irreversible changes in mind and body, the way in which you wake one summer morning less resilient thatn you were and by Christmas find your ability to mobilize gone, atrophied, no longer extant?  The way in which you life most of your life in California, and then you don't?  The way in which your awareness of this passing time - this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience - multiplies, metastisezes, become your very life?

Time passes.

Could it be that I never believed it?

Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?
It is Didion's accomplishment to voice the obvious plainly again and again and to do battle with it.  This is not rumination which goes nowhere in an endless loop.  Here the words echo again and again, as if singing a refrain.  Didion especially returns to images of Quintana's wedding.  Rather than distracting herself from it Didion stays alive in it.  She does what so many sufferers cannot.  She wrestles with the refrain.  Sometimes it pins her to the ground, and sometimes she is the victor, but she sees the experience through in real time.

Like all her writing, Didion brings masterful powers of description to her memories. Here she remembers her daughter at age five through a set of photographs.  She writes:
In a few she is wearing a cashmere turtleneck sweater I brought her from London when we went that May to do promotion for the European release of The Panic in Needle Park.  In a few she is wearing a checked gingham dress trimmed in eyelet, a little faded and a little too big for her, the look of a hand-me-down.  
What strikes me is the exactness - trimmed in eyelet, as if the precision of the words will raise the dead.  In a certain way, of course, they do, making palpable again what has become ephemeral. Again I have that sense that Didion is the priestess of a ceremony.  But by making herself the subject of this book as much as her daughter, Didion acknowledges, when it arises, not only her power but also her failures.  The loss she feels of her youth.  We have that contrast of the ultimate power and the ultimate frailty.
I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what go lost, what go wasted.
One of the reasons for these two books popularity is that Didion becomes a universal representative of loss.  She voices what, for many people, stays silent and guilty, hidden from the more public version of their mourning: regret, bitterness, a desire to escape the memories.  There's something almost like Greek theatre in it.

Not many books make me cry, but Blue Nights did.  It wasn't the grief at the death of an only child, although this is of course very sad, it is Didion's pitting of her loss against the careful precision of her description and the structure of her sentences.
The printing alone I cannot forget.

The printing alone breaks my heart.

Another moment, not, on examination, dissimilar: I remember very clearly the Christmas night at her grandmother's house in West Hartford when John and I came in from a movie to find her huddled alone on the stairs to the second floor.  
I was devastated by how, in the moment of a painful memory, Didion carefully places two commas in the creation of a consciously angular sentence: Another moment, not, on examination, dissimilar.  This could have been phrased more succinctly.  Didion uses a double negative: not dissimilar as opposed to writing similar.  She places the parenthetical on examination between not and dissimilar, requiring the two commas, laid upon the memory like flowers on a corpse, and making me painfully aware that it was Didion doing the remembering, as opposed to getting lost in the memory myself, and that it is of Didion's deep grief that I am reading. This conscious effort of craft effected an expression of Didion's pain and her attempt to contain it, I found that that moved me deeply.

Didion also fashions a section on her writing technique.  Creative process is a life-long obsession of mine, but I found the section striking as another example of juxtaposition of the twin subjects of Blue Nights: the mourner and the mourned, the relationship of creation to the experience of the creator.
"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 - "

The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted.  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.  
Following this section, Didion shows us what the passage became when it was fleshed out.  It offers not only a window into this writers process, but in uncovering these old notes Didion sees the greater effort she must now spend  to write.  She feels deeply this loss of self but I found the amount of effort she perceives she now spends comforting.  Good artistry, even after a lifetime of work, still comes out of industriousness.  To make art about such deeply personal material also requires perseverance.  Didion experienced the increase in effort as a sign of her diminishment.  She sees it as a manifestation of a frailty which her daughter Quintana ascribed to her.  In contemplating the loss of her daughter, Didion reveals her own frailty: her fear of having failed as a parent.  But it is the fruit of her efforts toward her writing that this book is not a collection of maudlin memories - it is a freeing of thought that bares the soul and helps us recognize ourselves. We are all vulnerable in the face of loss and Didion gives that frailty a voice. She speaks aloud our late night interior conversations with ourselves, the conversations held at that hour when our own mind is our worst nightmare. Pulling that private monster from our constricted chests, she frees us. I hope as I read that she does not think herself unique in this frailty.

Friend, Sheila, also recently posted on Blue Nights here.

1 comment:

Criticlasm said...

That's beautiful. I did read The Year of Magical Thinking and was amazed. Grief disorders us, and I'm stunned by how she uses her writing to navigate the storm. Really beautiful appreciation of it, so thank you.