29 March 2012

Fear and Possessiveness in BLUE NIGHTS

If there is an attractive side to grief, it is not shown in Joan Didion's latest memoir about losing her daughter Quintana. Even its sweet moments are tinged with a kind of desperation, as if reporting them is a show of the living. Didion repeats like a mantra something her daughter once said to her -- "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it" -- but she can't follow that directive. She doesn't sound depressed so much as haunted, and ritualizing everything in order to ward off the haunting.

Losing her only daughter provokes two impulses in Didion: the fear of gradually losing Quintana's memory and of gradually deteriorating and dying herself, and the instinct to clutch tight to whatever she has of her daughter -- even the out-of-context quote above -- at the cost of practically bringing herself to a standstill.
There is no moving on, in fact there's hardly any moving. Everything she does, she does by rote. In the middle of this stage of grief the adaptation of "The Year Of Magical Thinking" opens on Broadway and Didion takes to eating takeout backstage every night from the same restaurant. If we still talked about records stuck in grooves... It's as if this rite could reverse the past, which of course, is impossible. Not to say that ritual doesn't have a part in grief -- but BLUE NIGHTS shows the captivating danger in them.

The issue of Quintana's adoption is not fully connected to the present and her death but creates an interesting tension related to these points. Quintana's death seems to underline something in Didion about the impermanence of the arrangement that delivered baby Q into her and her husband's arms, a much-wanted only child whose later medical problems, whatever they were,  seem unrelated to her upbringing. (A certain Atlantic writer used the tales of Quintana's childhood escapades to indict Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne for being inattentive parents, but the case is inconclusive based on evidence provided.) Perhaps it's just the severing of the last tie between mother and non-biological child that causes Didion to wonder how much of herself she ever reflected in her daughter.

BLUE NIGHTS reveals little about the relationship between Didion and Quintana, in fact may make it even more impenetrable than before, but expertly maps the landscape of finding oneself among the living after a death. The brittleness of Didion's sentences maps back to her sense of her own fragility, highlighted by the mortality of others. Not dwelling on it, after all, is impossible.

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