‘Elegy to the Void’

John Bryson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion, Malibu, California, 1976

Blue Nights is a haunting memoir about the death of Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, at the age of thirty-nine, death from an infection that began just before Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack at the dinner table. Quintana’s death was not sudden. It was not at the dinner table. It involved four intensive care units, four hospitals, two coasts, and twenty months. The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s account of the time following her husband’s death, described her frantic disbelief in the possibility of a world without the man she’d been married to for almost forty years. Blue Nights is something quite different. Blue Nights describes Didion’s descent into the inevitability of living in a world not only without her husband, not only without her daughter, but, finally, without hope. The book is possessed by an immeasurable, unrelenting despair. And it is alive with what is lost.

Didion is, to my mind, the best living essayist in America. Not a controversial view, although there are those who despise her work for its almost patrician accent. But Didion is an iconoclast, creating her own superior class of one. Her work has been for fifty years a testament to her ability to see through the clouds of rhetorical nonsense and get to the point, looking down from a soaring, preternaturally intelligent bird’s-eye view, then diving, a suddenly beady-eyed bird of prey. There are rats to be found everywhere. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” she has written. She writes beautifully about what is ugly and truthfully about what is false. In Blue Nights, as in The Year of Magical Thinking, she writes about death and the echoes it leaves behind. But in this new memoir, one of those echoes is the author herself.

Blue Nights is not offered as a redemptive book or as a memoir about the transformations one goes through after the death of a loved one (although Didion is transformed and describes many of those transformations); it is not offered as a chronicle of change and the wisdom that follows change (although Didion clearly does change after Quintana’s death and does, indeed, gain wisdom).

Could you have seen, had you been walking on Amsterdam Avenue and caught sight of the bridal party that day, how utterly unprepared the mother of the bride was to accept what would happen before the year 2003 had even ended? The father of the bride dead at his own dinner table? The bride herself in an induced coma, breathing only on a respirator, not expected by the doctors in the intensive care unit to live the night? The first in a cascade of medical crises that would end twenty months later with her death?

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