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David Finkle

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Easy Reader: Is Joan Didion's Blue Nights Way Too Blue?

Posted: 11/07/11 10:58 AM ET

Anyone who's ever spent time in 12-step meetings is familiar with participants declaring they've been "beating up" on themselves. But there's no need to attend an organized confessional gathering to listen to someone beat up on herself with little let-up. Such self-flagellation can be found simply by paging through Joan Didion's Blue Nights (Knopf, $25, 188 pp.), her follow-up memoir to The Year of Magical Thinking. That's the one in which the acclaimed author details the 2003 death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and its excruciating aftermath.

Oh, brother, does Didion take herself to task as a deficient mother in the book about the life and 2005 death of adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne! By the time she ends the often touching and, as is characteristic of her, stylistically silken reminiscence, she's produced a slim volume likely to have many readers wondering as they close the covers whether they've ever perused anything quite so depressing.

There's no questioning Didion's reasons for feeling aggrieved. She lost her 71-year-old husband and 39-year-old daughter within a two-year period. (When she adapted The Year of Magical Thinking for a stage production that starred Vanessa Redgrave in New York and London, she included references to Quintana Roo's terminal illness not covered in the book.)

Yet, Didion makes clear her depressed state preceded the losses by decades. That's probably been duly registered by book buyers familiar with both her fiction and non-fiction. The very title of her 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays implies a fatalistic attitude towards existence. Not to mention that John Gregory Dunne's oeuvre was far from a laugh riot and the screenplays on which the couple collaborated, like Panic in Needle Park, hardly celebrated the infinite joys of days at the beach. For a while, Didion and Dunne were practically the go-to pair for despair.

(Even Didion's dust jacket photograph here by the sought-after Brigitte Lacombe looks like a portrait of woe. The worryingly thin memoirist -- wearing a cable-knit sweater and the merest hint of a smile -- hunches her shoulders so that her left arm is pulled in with the forearm lain across her unseen lap. Her right arm is also pulled in, bent at the elbow with her right hand draped over that shoulder. The resulting posture suggests she unconsciously chooses to present herself as thinner and fading faster that she already is.)

In Blue Nights, the words "depression" and "fear" show up early and continue appearing throughout. (The title refers to a time of day in a somewhat lengthy mid-year period that Didion cherishes and hates to see wane and eventually die.) By page 10, she's quoting Karl Menninger's Man Against Himself on suicide. Towards the end of Chapter 9 -- which begins, "On this question of fear" -- the latter word may reach its most crushing use when she offers another form of it when recalling about Quintana Roo, "Once she was born I was never not afraid."

In the next paragraph, she lists those fears, and they won't surprise many parents. What she never quite asks herself, though, is how much her remaining in such unrelenting terror unavoidably transmitted itself to her daughter. On the other hand, at many points in the book she does report Quintana Roo's admitted depression -- particularly in early childhood dreams of a "Broken Man" and in notes for a piece of fiction she planned at 14 and never wrote but describes as "the novel I'm writing just to show you." To show Didion what, exactly, she would appreciate learning but never does.

There are moments -- but few -- when Didion casts off her cloak of doom. The happiest are her recollections of Quintana Roo's 2003 wedding at Manhattan's St. John the Divine. As she recounts life with her daughter, she also remembers enjoyable events with family friends, such as the accomplished Natasha Richardson. There, too, of course, the shocking sad end to an exciting life hovers.

Nevertheless, Didion is obsessed with losing her daughter, also writing early "When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children." Yes, she's talking about the subject, but are we all? In discoursing on Quintana Roo's death -- and after having analyzed in print her reaction to a husband's demise -- Didion is absolutely dealing with reality, but is she dealing with everyone's reality? The implication is: She adamantly believes she is.

We all die, yes, but are we all mired in the fear of living and of death she examines? Or is her ever-present fear self-perpetuating not only for herself but for those around her, while the unwanted condition isn't incontestably true of everyone else? This is the larger question Didion might have pursued but doesn't in an often moving reminiscence of the daughter she loved deeply -- a daughter she's never convinced believed as much of her (or John Gregory Dunne) or returned that love in kind.

"Was I the problem?" she asks. "Was I always the problem?" With the query, she may inadvertently reveal in this difficult-to-look-away-from tale that -- considering her fear-always-prevails mindset -- she may indeed have been a large part of Quintana Roo's problem.