Killing the Mood

30 Jul

Recently I agreed to go bowling. I don’t normally agree to go bowling but this was offered in place of payment for work contributed and being a creative in NZ implies a certain level of contra will be accepted in place of actual money; so bowling I went. In perpetual fear of traffic I left home early and subsequently arrived early at Newmarket Tenpin Bowling – though I parked opposite the entrance I still managed to get lost and having left my phone (my brain) at home enlisted the help of a rotund and kindly gentleman who was waiting for a lift not due to arrive for another 20 minutes. Together we walked, getting soaked in the perpetual rain, the tiny circumference from my car to the outer edges of the block using his iphone to help navigate us back to where we began, where upon we realised my folly. I offer all this to give you some idea of my frazzled state of mind at the time and why I might have made the terrible decision I did.
Upon making it to the top of the filthy stacked car park building, the top floor of which promised to be a bowling alley, I was confronted by an overload of sensory kitsch, I can’t really begin to describe how filthy the place is but I’m sure you’re happy to take my word for it. I was the first one of my delegation to arrive and not being in the mood for simulated combat or pool, I decided to read the book I’d brought to keep me company. And this was my mistake, for the book I had brought with me was Joan Didion’s newest (and possibly, or so the opportunistic publicity machine would have you panic, believe, lament and buy, her last) Blue Nights.

I once read a quote of Didion’s where she said she coped with hardship by ‘writing through it.’ Hence The Year of Magical Thinking is her meditation on husband John Dunne dying at the dinner table one Christmas Eve. As most people know their only daughter Quintana Roo (named after a Mexican province) died just as the book on her husbands death was being released, about 2 weeks before she was to go on a publicity tour. So Blue Nights is Didion writing through this: the death of her daughter, alone, without her husband, Quintana’s father. It’s about being a writer in the 60’s and 70’s around the time they adopted Quintana, it’s about being an adoptive parent and having an adopted child; about the ‘choice parable’ where the strength of one intention “we chose you” is obfuscated by the implication of the other “who didn’t choose me so that you might?”

I’m always affected by Joan Didion. I was trying to figure out exactly why the other day and I came up with this: Joan Didion sees and describes the world in a way I get. In a way I appreciate for its sophistication, eloquence and discipline. I wish to have her powers but settle for playing audience to them.
She is cold in her delivery of overly emotional topics yet without being disinterested or cruel; she has seemingly mastered the art of detachment. And it is with this characteristic detachment that Didion tackles what is easily the hardest subject matter of all: outliving your child. I’m not allowed to quote anything from the book directly as it’s not due to release here until December, but I’ll say this: there is a thread in this book, a thread of fortitude and resolute thoughtfulness in the face of extreme loss. That thread is partly to do with a repeated line (there are many repeated lines, a function of Didion’s writing that never comes off as beat poetic ),  this line I’m thinking of is one that insists that when we are talking about mortality we are talking about our children. Through this line and others Didion deftly, gracefully and heartbreakingly describes  her life, its hardest challenges, strangest coincidences, subtlest memories and the fact that now it is ending whilst she is bereft of the two people she would have keep her company in the end; as the Blue Nights give way to the darkness of winter.

I may be vulnerable in a way that others are stronger, less affected, when it comes to books but I challenge even the hardest reader to sit amongst the garish lights of a filthy strip mall car park with 1980’s computer noises reverberating, wet patches of indeterminate fluids pooling, the distant threat of having to stand up in front of other willing (and far more proficient) bowlers than you and make a spectacle of yourself when all you really want to do is mourn and hope. Mourn for the countless losses good people endure and hope that the subtext in the publicity material is wrong: that this won’t be the last thing you read by one of the bravest, remarkable and most astute authors of modern times.

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2 Responses to “Killing the Mood”

  1. geoff richards July 31, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    A delightful meditation on a dark and rainy night in Newmarket and one of my generation’s most relevant writers.

  2. wildstorm November 3, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    I listened to her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday.

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