Roughly halfway through Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s most recent release, she quotes something her daughter once said: “Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it.” Once the phrase is spoken, it returns throughout the remainder of the essay, almost a touchstone for both Didion and her reader.
The irony of the words, of course, is not lost – neither on the author nor the reader; Blue Nights is a slender volume, but it’s nothing if not an exercise in dwelling on death. I was aware of this before I began reading it, and entirely prepared for it. What I didn’t expect was the degree to which the dwelling (at times almost luxuriating) would be paired with rich descriptions of privilege and wealth.
Blue Nights is a biographical account, so any attempt to conceal the nature of Quintana’s (Didion’s daughter) childhood would be dishonest; and yet the profusion of detail used to situate Didion’s small family in a specific socioeconomic sphere, and the repeated and somewhat nonchalant manner in which she slips in other indications that money was no object for them (her Upper East Side apartment, their house in Brentwood, the Corvette, shopping at Bendel’s but only for sizes 0 and 2, to name just a few) ultimately gets to a point where it begins to seem a bit tacky. Is she name-dropping? Trying to make sure the reader has a specific impression of who she is, and the lifestyle she had (and was able to give her daughter) and continues to have? What, exactly, is the point of driving home the idea that she comes from a space of privilege?
At one point in the book, she addresses the question of privilege (if somewhat obliquely), cautioning the reader to refrain from assuming Quintana’s life was easy in any way because of her background. No, money couldn’t buy Quintana happiness. No, money couldn’t keep her from dying. Oddly, though, Didion dwells on their privileged life just as much as – if not more than – she dwells on her daughter’s death, repeatedly evoking the red soles of the Christian Louboutin shoes she wears on her wedding day. If the reader has a sense that Quintana’s background should have given her some advantage over her emotional struggles, it may be because Didion has already steered things in that direction, and proceeded full speed ahead toward her destination.
It’s entirely possible that Didion would have been better served by dwelling more on her daughter’s death, and less on the designer labels she wore. Instead, her almost neurotic need to make the reader understand her lifestyle (and the lifestyle she was able to afford Quintana) gives Blue Nights an empty, superficial quality. There’s bound to be a void in any work that delves into the subject of death; sadly, though, the hollowness here has more to do with a lack of substance than any longing for a deceased loved one.