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Author Joan Didion is shown near a painting of her daughter Quintana in her New York apartment in 2007. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Author Joan Didion is shown near a painting of her daughter Quintana in her New York apartment in 2007. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Review: Memoir

Joan Didion plays it as it lays Add to ...

Joan Didion’s previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, became a one-woman Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave. In the event that her new memoir, Blue Nights, follows suit, I nominate Savion Glover to star. Yes, Savion Glover – the reigning tap dance king, an African-American man less than half the author’s age. No matter. The play would consist entirely of rhythm, beat, syncopation, pulse.

Anyone who has ever read Didion can testify to the way her singular rhythms linger on inside the reader for days, like a tune one cannot stop humming. Although she is possessed of a clear, probing intellect, the wellspring of Didion’s prose seems less cognitive than visceral, as though her method of working out ideas is first to ingest them and let them course through her bloodstream, assimilating them through the metronome of her heart before any attempt to organize them by means of reason or logic.

The result is her trademark style, marked by alternating stretches of legato and staccato, in which words crescendo into tidal swells, then break on the shores of a sudden new paragraph.

Marked by the one-sentence paragraph.

By the one-fragment paragraph.

By the intoxicating anaphora.

Anaphora: the repetition of a sequence of words, intended to lend them emphasis.

Blue Nights begins and ends by emphasizing colour – that hue particular to the summer solstice, when “twilights turn long and blue,” a harbinger of shortening days. Blue light: the author’s way of articulating the intense beauty and pain that accompany awareness of imminent loss. Note the word “imminent.” Although Didion’s husband died in 2003 (her sudden widowhood is the subject of The Year of Magical Thinking), and their only child, Quintana, died two years later, this slim memoir deals less with loss per se than with its early apprehension: “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 shadows.”

Didion addresses grief by continually circling back to the time before its advent, spiralling through memory as though to salvage what remains, discover what clues may yet give off a telling glow within the mind’s Stygian clutter.

Note, too, the word “clutter.” Blue Nights has a jumbled quality, with memories of Quintana giving way to memories of Chanel suits and film shoots, of room service and Minton china, news reports about abduction and homicide, about Hiroshima and Buchenwald. In this way, the structure mirrors not only the disorienting effects of grief, but also – and this is Didion’s subject too – the disorienting effects of aging.

Initially, half-buried among recollections of her daughter, the themes of personal failing and personal frailty make rather brief, shy appearances. But as the narrative continues, she becomes increasingly explicit about the fact that the blue light, which warns of “the dying of the brightness,” is signalling to her. With a falter-step that has its own off-tempo grace, Didion glances, glances away, and glances back again at evidence of her own encroaching diminution. Diminution: fitting word for a woman who is famously slight of stature. Though she has been “remarkably small” since childhood, her size and fragility take on new significance as she ages; she chronicles movingly and without self-pity how, at 76, health problems lead her to doctors, then physical therapists, dietitians, protein drinks and intravenous infusions.

Yet what scares her most is the prospect of not somatic, but cognitive frailty. In one remarkable passage, Didion illuminates her own writing process, sharing early notes for a novel and allowing that writing has always felt akin to “sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” Didion fans long beguiled by her distinctive cadences might want to kiss her hand for offering such these private glimpses into her craft. And when, a few pages later, she worries about “my new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself,” the revelation is more wrenching for her having shared that earlier intimacy.

And also because she has – another Didion trademark – spoken with devastating accuracy. This book is heartbreaking in part because it is somewhat jumbled. The shards of memory, shimmering as they are, do not finally fit together, quite; one senses the author hasn’t fully perceived the extent to which they might cohere. Instead, in its elliptical, kinetic way, the book offers something braver than coherence: a raw and rare integrity that resists resolution.

Leah Hager Cohen’s most recent novel is The Grief of Others.

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