Joan Didion’s career, like many of the best essayists, has been characterised by a sense of distance from the tides of contemporary culture and a commensurate ability to summarise the fluctuations of that culture in a lucid and profound way. Her best works, such as Slouching towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From, subvert dominant cultural narratives and offer a new lens through which to view history and contemporary events. In Slouching towards Bethlehem she questions the way in which the ‘Hippie Revolution’ of 1960s’ California was unfolding, not from a reactionary perspective, but from one which could see that behind the dictum of ‘peace and love’ there was a darker undercurrent; one that would ultimately devour the Hippie movement.
Didion’s clear eyed ability to analyse the disparate elements of a cultural moment is turned inward in Blue Nights, as it was for her previous memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. The latter book recorded the profound sense of aimlessness and loss Didion experienced following the sudden death of her husband. The new memoir sees the tragic loss of Didion’s daughter through the prism of the earlier death of her husband; it is an intensely moving account of an individual’s attempt to cope with this momentous double loss.
The cultural critique of Didion’s earlier work is here replaced by a relentless emotional and personal critique, one that, unlike the earlier work, does not seek clarity or coherence, does not find an undercurrent or narrative through which she and the reader can understand events. Instead this work finds Didion unequivocally and endlessly at a loss, unable to come to any conclusion, bereft of her keen eye for judgement. This is then Didion at her most exposed and vulnerable and it is therefore the most affecting work of her long and distinguished career.
By Thomas Storey