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Joan Didion: Late in Life

Posted: 01/10/2012 12:24 pm

"Joan Didion's Blue Nights is a poetic triumph!"

"Poetry doesn't sell, don't call it that."

"Joan Didion's Blue Nights lays bare the vitality of old age."

"Old age sells even worse than poetry. Vitality?"

"Joan Didion's Blue Nights turns grief and loss into weight loss."

"That's sounding better."

"Joan Didion's Blue Nights offers readers a revolutionary new weight loss system that utilizes everyday grief and loss to melt away unwanted pounds and inches."

"Perfect. Lazy diet books are perennial bestsellers."

Old age in America is a humorless state of spent energies -- a time-desert laced with lost economic and political power and long hours spent in medical waiting rooms skimming back issues of National Geographic. Old age in America is a commercial loop stuck on the pros and cons of Medicare Part B and unmeasured time in wall-papered kitchens trying to get child-proof caps off orange prescription bottles. Old age in America is simply the loss of youth.

The American canon on old age is as unreliable and overstuffed as America itself. It does not contain the truth. Rarely, save an occasional AARP advertisement in a magazine or television pitch for "Boost," the energy drink, do "old people" appear in media at all. When they do appear, they are most often interested in "eating right" and "exercising" and playing ball with their grandchildren in comfortable shoes and ironed khakis. There must be more!

I bring up "old age" here because it is this subject that lingers for readers who take on Joan Didion's brilliant new book Blue Nights. A lifetime fan of her work, I must admit I was initially put off by the book's marketing juggernaut, which suggested it was simply a memoir of "grief and loss" penned by "America's most resilient writer." Really, it was this last phrase "America's most resilient writer" that bothered me the most. What a horrible thing to say about someone like her, I thought. Resilent, like she's waterproof? I wondered to myself what she thought about this preposterous claim. Still, I also know "resilient" is something old people are supposed to be. Old people who do anything late in life other than go to doctor's appointments and talk about Medicare Part B are "resilient."

Thankfully, Didion writes about more than just grief and loss in her new memoir, and she does it in poetry: "In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue." Of course, in real life and in the company of regular people, we do not speak of the summer solstice as any type of time marker. We do not speak of the turning of twilights either. This is not a criticism, but an observation that Didion wants us to read her book as we might read poetry -- with a heightened sense of wonder at the capability of language to say something new. Her blue nights "approximate" the "blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres," and so on. It is a different blue. A new blue. It is poetry.

Even after the poetic preface, later when she's laying out the bald facts, there is poetry still: "July 26, 2010. Today would be her wedding anniversary. Seven years ago today we took the leis from the florist's boxes and shook the water in which they were packaged onto the grass outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue. The white peacock spread its fan. The organ sounded."

Beyond the raw details of her daughter's death, beyond her grasp to understand its aftermath and its applied metaphor, Blue Nights deals with the physical "dismantling" of Didion herself. To me, this is the most challenging, interesting part of the narrative. In chapter 20, Didion writes, "I see a new neurologist, at Columbia Presbyterian. The new neurologist has answers: all new neurologists have answers, usually wishful. New neurologists remain the last true believers in the power of wishful thinking. The answers offered by this particular new neurologist are for me to gain weight and devote a minimum of three hours a week to physical therapy. I have been through this catechism before."

Indeed, as I began here in seeming jest, it is grief and loss that are believed to have made Joan Didion thin and frail. Her thinness and her oldness are the sum total of her frailness. However, as she points out to her doctors and her family, she has always been thin and small. She does not tell them what she should -- she is not frail, has never been frail, and so on. This is the unsung triumph of Didion's Blue Nights -- the truth about her old age, about old age itself. It is not always less.

Nothing Didion has written sense Play It As It Lays seems to me as right and true as Blue Nights. Nothing she has written seems as purposeful and urgent to be told.

There is a fine profile of Joan Didion found in Poets & Writers magazine (Nov/December 2011). She appears on the cover. She has not been airbrushed. She isn't smiling. She isn't holding up a leafy vegetable or palming a bottle of "Boost." She is instead staring right at the viewer with big open brown eyes.

I have my own portrait of Joan Didion in my dining room. It appeared first on the cover the Los Angeles Times Book Review, when such a thing existed, on the occasion of the release of Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. My portrait is done by Scott Lauman, a Gliclee print on archival cotton rag, 13 x 16. It was a gift from my wife. I have the first print from the edition of 100. My Joan Didion is old. My Joan Didion is not smiling. My Joan Didion is thin and small and anything but frail.

Joe Woodward is the author of Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West by O/R Books, New York / London. You can read more at TheNathanaelWestProject.

 

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