Reviews

Things Fall Apart: Joan Didion's 'Blue Nights'

Joan Didion is unmoored by loss. Out of that loss comes this second, searing memoir, Blue Nights.


Blue Nights

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 188 pates
Author: Joan Didion
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11
Amazon

In 1968, Joan Didion published a book of essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In "A Preface", she wrote: “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.” She goes on to describe her emotional difficulties after spending time in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, at the time of her writing the loci of the American Hippie movement. “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart...”

Proof that the center did not hold, that things fall apart, would come much later, on 26 August 2006, when Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, the adopted daughter of Didion and her late husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died at age 39. The cause of her death remains unknown, though it came after two years of increasing debility that began, innocently enough, with the flu.

Some have suggested Quintana’s death resulted from drinking. Given the circumstances, such accusations are inane, even cruel. A young woman is dead. Her mother, first a famous writer, then an infamous one for The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir she wrote when John Gregory Dunne died, is unmoored by loss. Out of that loss comes a second memoir, Blue Nights.

There should be an adjective in the above sentence. Out of that loss comes a second (insert adjective here) memoir. I open my thesaurus. “Pain” offers a page and a half of adjectives. Sadden, sorrowful, harrowing. Distress, broken, misery, slough of despond. Torment, anguish, agony. Take your pick.

*

Dominique Dunne, aged 22. Didion’s niece, Quintana’s first cousin, strangled by her boyfriend in 1982.

Natasha Richardson, aged 45. Daughter of Didion’s close friends Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson (also deceased), dead from freak fall while skiing.

Lenny Dunne, Didion’s sister-in-law, Dominique’s mother, who died after years of Multiple Sclerosis.

Dominick Dunne, Didion’s brother-in-law, Dominique’s father, who died of cancer in 2009.

Tita Moore, childhood friend of Quintana’s. Didion notes: “She died before Quintana did.”

This list is both incomplete (we don’t know who else Didion has lost) and entirely too long.

Blue Nights makes no pretense of hope. Why should it?

*

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes: “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for witholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”

That impenetrable polish is stripped by the deaths of husband and daughter. Instead, Didion writes of losing the ease of writing, which she likened to creating music. Now creating that 'literary music' has become a fight for each word. Didion fears the comparative ease utilized to compose some of the American literature’s most extraordinary sentences will never return. This mistress of the impenetrable polish now addresses the reader as “you”. Here is Didion, recounting a young Quintana, getting hold of a box and labeling it with magic marker:

“The ‘drawers’ she designated were these: ‘Cash,’ ‘Passport,’ ‘My IRA,’ and, finally—I find myself hardly able to tell you this—‘Little Toys.’

Later she says of the many Intensive Care Units Quintana passed through: “I told you, they were all the same.”

Didion is flatly despairing, fearful, blunt about her own aging and health problems, which have left her frail. Recent photographs depict the familiar thinness, now reduced to translucency. Didion has taken none of the hideous surgical enhancement routes that ruin aging women’s appearances, and looks like what she is: a petite, elderly woman whose personal agonies are writ large on her expressive face.

*

Blue Nights is as much about aging and the inevitability of death as it is about Quintana herself: “This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.”

Didion writes frankly of this dying of the brightness, its attendant fear, of her own ill health: an aneurysm, shingles, a host of not-quite-diagnosed yet disabling ailments: a gastrointestinal bleed, neuropathy, a fainting spell that left her bleeding on her bedroom floor, unable to call for help.

There's nothing to say to this, no comfort to offer an aging woman in failing health, sitting alone in a waiting room pondering the medical form’s request for “next of kin”. Didion considers her nephew, the actor and producer Griffin Dunne, whose work requires frequent travel. She does not list him.

Reading this, I'm reminded of Mark Everett’s autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett, a musician, has also lost his entire family -- father, mother, sister -- and, like Didion, a couple of dear friends and relatives far too young to die. Things the Grandchildren Should Know also mentions what we might call the waiting room conundrum. The only difference, and perhaps the saving grace for him, is Everett is in his late 40s. He still has time before L’Heure Bleue settles 'round him permanently.

*

Didion worries she was the reason for Quintana’s difficulties, an insufficient parent, one who said Shush, I’m working one too many times. She probes Quintana’s fragile mental health, the medications prescribed and not. She admits her failure to see that as an adopted child, Quintana harbored terrible anxiety over abandonment, no matter how much her adoptive parents loved her. Didion suspects she may have infantilized the beautiful baby girl whose adoption was celebrated with a christening including not one, but two christening gowns and a sum total of 60 infant dresses hanging from perfect miniature hangers.

Didion admits, in short, that despite money, famous friends, the lovely homes in beautiful neighborhoods, the boxes of soaps from I. Magnin and cashmere sweaters from London, that theirs was not a perfect family life. Quintana was a troubled child who grew into a troubled adult. She felt the need to rebel against her parents (what child doesn’t?), railing against “the suburbia house” her parents bought in 1988, at age 14 penning a “novel” wherein the protagonist, also named Quintana, becomes pregnant and is disowned by her family.

In other words, no impenetrable polish here. Only direct hits, one after the other.

Quintana’s mental health woes manifested early; the book’s back jacket features a photograph of a plaintive five-year-old Quintana Roo, perched on a kitchen chair, head resting in her hands, a look of adult sadness on her lovely face. She had nightmares about “the Broken Man” locking her in the garage, a monstrous apparition so vividly imagined she had her mother nervously checking the windows.

At age five, she telephoned the Camarillo Mental Hospital to find out what do to if she went crazy. When she came down with Chicken Pox one Christmas Eve, she waited on the steps of her grandmother’s darkened home until her parents returned from a movie. She calmly informed them she had cancer.

Of Quintana’s mental woes, Didion writes, witheringly, that by the time she memorized the latest diagnosis there was a new one: “I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a diagnosis led to ‘cure,’ or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility.” It's here that she mentions Quintana’s adult anxieties and tendency to drink too much. Didion notes that while alcohol and depression do not mix, no modern pharmaceutical rivals drinking’s popularity. One may read this as a defense of her daughter or, as the holidays loom, consider the contents on one’s own liquor cabinets and the relief held therein.

Didion writes of adoption, laughably simple in the '60s. She and Dunne had tried and failed to conceive, mentioned it to their actress friend Diana Lynn, who recommended her obstetrician, who telephoned shortly thereafter from St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica with a newborn girl available for adoption. It all happened quickly, and Didion admits to moments of pure panic, of fearing not loving the infant, of not knowing how on earth to care for a baby, right down to needing help with the layette.

As per the adoption process in the '60s and '70s, the Didion-Dunnes were honest from the start about Quintana’s birth circumstances, creating a story of choosing “that baby” from all the others in the nursery. The dark side of “that baby” is the very fact that Quintana was available at all, a situation creating a deep fear of being unwanted and abandoned, a deep fear Didion failed to recognize, or found too unbearable to investigate. When Quintana’s birth family finds her as an adult, it's an unmitigated disaster for all parties.

*

Early in the book Didion mentions some readers will feel Quintana, with her 60 baby dresses, two christening gowns, fine houses, help in said houses (Didion had a housekeeper named Arcelia) made her “privileged” (Didion’s term.) There is no question that Didion and Dunne, who worked as screenwriters, were (and remain) wealthy individuals. Mention is made of purchasing Quintana’s layette at Saks, clothing bought at Bendel’s, private schooling, international travel, four-star hotels, homes in Malibu, Brentwood, and a fine apartment in New York City. Didion is defensive on this point, noting that money brought neither mother nor daughter happiness. Money, and the medical care it bought, did not save Quintana’s life.

*

Didion is now 77 years old. She inhabits an enormous New York apartment whose closets are stuffed with lifetimes of mementoes, from her great-grandmother’s embroideries to Quintana’s school uniforms. She no longer has use for these items, as they fail to evoke lost loved ones. Yet she keeps them. But why? Because of iInertia? Depression? A physical inability to clear out decades of accumulation? She repeatedly mentions “inadequately appreciating the moment,”—the parties, the weddings, Quintana’s 16th birthday luncheon-- without seeming to realize that appreciating every moment as it happens is like thinking about breathing: paralyzing.

For all but the most mindful, to be human is to inhabit the moment unthinkingly. Abandoning her apartment’s overstuffed closets, Didion walks to a Central Park bench, where a friend has donated a plaque in Quintana’s name:

Quintana Roo Dunne Michael 1969-2005

In Summertime and In Wintertime

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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