As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story. As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them. As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense. The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity. Because of her sentences. And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions. As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost. As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.
(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with. The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.” I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)
In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.
Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.
There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.