Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”
Blue Nights by Joan Didion is a book of memories. In 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter went into the hospital with pneumonia, eventually slipping into a coma. While her daughter was unconscious, Didion’s husband died. Within a year, Quintana had died, also.
The story of that year is the now very familiar book to Didion readers, The Year of Magical Thinking. A bestseller, the book rawly explored the time during which Didion lost everyone. She followed its publication with an extensive and grueling touring schedule and worked with Vanessa Redgrave to turn it into a one-woman show on Broadway (which was mounted here in Kansas City by The Living Room).
But such overwhelming grief does not simply dissipate. Didion writes Blue Nights as a follow-up, a continuation, of the story. She writes it as a way to express loss, the kind of loss that one feels in the absence of blue nights.
Blue nights, she writes in the outset, are where “the twilights turns long and blue,” that time of year around the weeks before and after the Summer Solstice where the light never seems to fully die:
During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness . . . This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.
There is something mystical about the dying of the light at this autumnal time of year that stirs the mind and gives easy entry to Didion’s melancholy.
As the earth slips into its seasonal slumber, one’s thoughts track to the cycles of our own lives, the way we surge and ebb and then flow into quietude. Our thoughts pulse through our beings when action falls away, and Didion’s prose embodies that. Blue Nights is the story of a mind wrestling with loss, devastation, age, debility, and the powerfully oppressive need to continue to live.
While The Year of Magical Thinking contends with how to recapture the time before everything changed, Blue Nights is the recognition that these things have passed beyond recovery.
Didion delves deeply into Quintana’s life to try and identify the point at which the loss of Quintana began. Even though she died of a seemingly happenstance illness, Didion writes as one tortured by the thought that she was the executioner and she writes as one befuddled as now being the remnant.
Blue Nights is an elegant treatise on grief and the difficulty of sustaining our lives, of sustaining our momentum forward, after the mourners have gone and the casseroles have all been eaten.
About the Author
Melissa Carle is a Support Specialist with the KC-LSP and thinks life is too short to read a book that doesn't excite you in the first 40 pages. She likes cooking, herb gardening, and, of course, reading and thinks all good books, fiction and non-fiction alike, share one thing in common: they're just a good yarn.