My evening with Joan Didion

Joan Didion is reading from her second smashing meditation on death, Blue Nights. And I’m her interlocutor and foil again onstage in Cambridge. With a woman of the considered written word, not the spontaneous spoken word, it’s a tricky job. And it didn’t solve for me the puzzle of Didion’s power. But how could I not share it, or you not respond?

Joan Didion’s a writers’ writer gone suddenly, in her seventies, rock star and phenomenon, meeting a hungry market for introspections on death both sudden, as in the case of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Didion’s 2005 best-seller, The Year of Magical Thinking; or slow and almost unfathomable death, which came to Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana Roo, at 39, and prompted Blue Nights. Six hundred readers bought books and tickets to hear Didion and pack the First Church in Harvard Square last night.

One beauty of Blue Nights, I am saying toward the close, is that when Joan Didion writes “frail” about herself, what we remember is the oppposite: “indomitable.” But I’ve got to get down the odd gaps in this book. They’re disquieting, then illuminating. This is her Quintana book, for the adopted daughter who died, but there are scant traces of Quintana in it. The mother and writer has preempted all the suffering and mourning in this sad story. Quintana’s wedding day is central but the man Quintana married is just barely named. About Quintana, we learn that she had abandonment issues — as an adopted only child under the roof of two driven writers; that she graduated from Barnard, became a photo editor at Elle, that she drank too much and got desperately sick twice in her thirties, and died… But we do not meet Quintana past her teens. We learn, as Didion writes, that “Quintana is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct.” Blue Nights is Joan alone — Joan’s loss, Joan’s frailty, Joan’s inadequate mothering: it may be tracing the arc of Joan’s writing career more than Quintana’s life, as Nathan Heller writes in a penetrating comment in the New York Times Magazine.

So the book about Quintana is really about Joan, and for me the evening with Joan is about the audience, including me. Were we there as inadequate parents, as mortals in fear of death? Were we there generously as a Didion support group that came to feed more than be fed. Or not so happily, as groupies around a brand, famous as Didion is for dropping the brandnames of cake-makers and grand hotels? Would we have been there last night, would I have posted these words, if her name weren’t Joan Didion?

Thanks to the Harvard Book Store for hosting the reading and recording the conversation.

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