Today marks Joan Didion's 77th birthday. Maybe on some level I intuited this, as I've been doing nothing but reading her, this past funky weekend. First I reread Year of Magical Thinking, then onto her newest feature, Blue Nights. The latter is more like a sequel to the first. The backstory to Magical Thinking is that she lost her husband suddenly- her longtime husband whom she was so close to she could finish the sentences of - the equally celebrated novelist John Gregory Dunne, while their only adult child was in the hospital. The book follows her mental progress the year after her husband's unexpected death, meanwhile coping with her daughter's ever-complicated illness. The idea of magical thinking stems from her irrational belief that, through doing this or that (i.e. not donating his clothes) she could bring him back.
I'm sure we all engage in some level of MAGICAL THINKING. if I do this, THIS won't happen. if I'm a decent person, maybe THIS will work out. and yet it does not because life is guided by unseen forces and the limited actions of ourselves. Hers is just very profound and tragic. Blue Nights follows this vein...the focus in this work? Her daughter, who died as Magical Thinking awaited publication. She was 39 years old.
Didion, to me, is one of the great ones still with us. We may have lost Salinger and we may have lost Updike recently, but we still have Joan Didion. Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth....a dying breed, a vanishing class. Joan Didion has been renowned for her powers as a writer of nonfiction over the years, particularly essays. I confess, I've yet to read her fiction.
These last few years have her peering inwards and Didion, who has always been on the borderline of the mainstream for the majority of her career, has become remarkably famous (think Oprah's Book Club famous) for it. Is it because she's now openly meditating on an universal subject from a deeply, deeply personal vein. She's baring her tragedies to us all- and although (her writing has been construed as narcissistic by the HATERS out there) that is a very self-focused thing, it's a case of the smaller becoming the larger. Meaning- by being so intent us showing us her own wounds, she is allowing us to see ourselves in them, too.
So Blue Nights. I was such a devout apostle of the Year of Magical Thinking. it's one of the books that left an imprint on me. I reread it right before I started Blue Nights and Didion's writing, oddly, became like oxygen. So I moved on...because the whole time you read Magical Thinking you believe her daughter WILL get better. when you read the afterword, your heart cracks.
Blue Nights fades in and out between the present reality of Didion's aging (it made me pause to consider old age at a great length- it's not something I typically think of) to memories of her daughter, both the painful and the sentimental. She struggles to see if there were seeds of her medical condition in the past, her childhood, her actions growing up and becoming a woman. Not only that, but to some level, it is a memoir of dealing with mental illness.
Didion expresses in the book that she does not feel old. Rather, it's something that's crept up on her that she hasn't fully embraced. How do you embrace old age, though?
It's written with trademark Didion minimalism. She never overstates anything ; you never get wrapped in a flowery sentence or smothered by extreme metaphor. It has its own brittle, masterful beauty. But yet, this work is even more minimalist. Is it because she's getting older? She asks so many questions in this 1oo-something page book and she does not answer them all. They are left hanging there, for the reader to contemplate.
Either it's a strategy by her....who can provide any answers to these questions? we're not gods, hindsight is perfect, but we're all humans capable of imperfections and mortality is lost on us all- or it's a trademark of her growing older . Before I left NY, I was fortunate to catch her give a free speech at Barnes and Noble. All you heard was her faint whisper as Susan Cheever questioned her on. Someone amongst us stated what we all were thinking, on some level: "this is her last work." That's gloomy, really gloomy, but you have to wonder.
The most accomplished feature of BN, though, is the fact that the reader feels they have aged right alongside Didion and are hailing from a world that's not existent anymore. People are dead and places have changed. Everything is ultimately temporary and sometimes we are left , rather dumbstruck, to wonder: what happened?
And what happened, indeed. Happy birthday Joan. I think you personally have a lot of power left in you and I wish you the best.
p.s.: “Interviewer: Are there any new topics you'd like to write about?Joan Didion: Economics. I never understood economics, not that I do now. It made no sense to me.
Interviewer: On what level?
Joan Didion: On the making-sense level.”