I remember when The Year of Magical Thinking came out because I was still working for an accounting firm. I was at a client in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Business travel had seemed exotic and interesting at first, but by this point I was tired of it and tired of always getting delayed at Newark because there was always some kind of weather system passing through. There’s a lot of weather in New Jersey. One night, sick of my hotel room and the conference room I worked in, I took the rental car and drove, not quite sure where I was going, half-scared of New Jersey highways, but in desperate need of a change in scenery. Eventually I came across the mall, and in the mall there was a Barnes & Noble, and when you can’t leave a place, at least there are books. I saw the new Joan Didion on a shelf and it was such a relief. I bought it, drove to the next closest place, which I hoped would be a diner, but was McDonalds instead, ordered dinner and sat in a booth, started to read and found myself crying big tears into my fries.
Reading Joan Didion in a too bright fast food chain in the suburban depths of New Jersey is one of my favourite reading memories of my life to date. Make of that what you will.
Of course I love Joan Didion. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman with a blog, Twitter and Instagram accounts and a novel draft on their laptop who hasn’t written their own version of “Goodbye to All That” in their diaries, on their blogs or in their zines at some point. So of course I was excited about Blue Nights, bought it the day it came out, devoured it. No New Jersey, no McDonalds. Just at home.
Blue Nights is slim and spare, and so much has been written about it. Barely a week after its official release date, every angle has been covered and analyzed somewhere – her thoughts on aging and parenthood and privilege – you don’t even have to read the book to know the major images, moments, ideas. So I don’t have much to add. I was frustrated by the book at first, by how skeletal and elliptical it was. I wanted something more robust, I guess, and then found myself feeling guilty for wanting that. More. By the end of the book I felt like Didion had given more than enough. And that last page is as good and powerful as anything I’ve ever read by her. I still wish that the book had more to it (although, what exactly?), but I don’t fault her for writing it the way she did.
The book is sad, and scary in its sadness. When she writes, ““You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember”, this is terrifying. It’s what grief looks like.