Ms. Didion’s readings of that novel as well as Quintana’s school-age poems, fragments and photographs are heartbreaking. Her cool passage on her daughter’s “depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes” in early adulthood recall her own self-reckoning in The White Album: “She was depressed. She was anxious. Because she was depressed, and because she was anxious, she drank too much. This was called medicating herself. Alcohol has its own well-known defects as a medication for depression, but no one has ever suggested—ask any doctor—that it is not the most effective anti-anxiety agent yet known. This would seem a fairly straightforward dynamic, yet, once medicalized—once the depths and shallows and quicksilver changes had been assigned names—it appeared not to be.” We hear in this the mother who spent a decade going from manuscript to boxed lunch preparation to nightcap and W.B. Yeats before bed.
“Bodily decrepitude is wisdom,” Yeats wrote, and the lesson of Blue Nights, intended or not, is that a poetic vocabulary is of more use than the language of modern medicine in coming to grips with despair and death. There is a lot in the book about Ms. Didion’s own advancing age and failing health. She falls, she’s hospitalized, she’s comically misdiagnosed, she comes to fear standing up from a chair, she sees “lace curtains” in her vision that are really blood. Most frightening, she relates her failing confidence in her writing methods. After an otherwise pointless anecdote about a cab driver who believed Michael Crichton had stolen one of his ideas, she writes: “I tell you this true story just to prove that I can.” She used to say we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Now she tells them in order to stay alive.
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