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From Joan Didion, another memoir of haunting, unthinkable loss

In the introduction to her 1968 collection of reported essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Joan Didion makes a dire observation.

"Writers," she warns, "are always selling somebody out."

Forty-three years later, at age 76, Didion turns the writer's gaze -- in Yeats' phrase, "a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun" -- on herself.

In "Blue Nights," if she does not sell herself out, she at least lays herself bare.

With the detached and knowing voice that is her trademark (as if delivering commentary over a dry martini at a Mount Olympus nightclub) -- a voice that seems unemotional but can knock you off your feet -- she writes about the life and death of her only child: her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael.

In so doing, she also looks unflinchingly in the mirror, exposing her own sorrow, maladjustment to growing old, parental flaws and growing sense of isolation.

The book begins with Quintana's wedding day in 2003 and flashes back and forth from one indelible moment to another -- from her adoption at 7 months old to her death in a New York City ICU at age 39, after 20 months of medical crises.

Didion gives us a mosaiclike portrait of her daughter -- formed from snippets of decades-old conversation, a childhood poem, a memory of a baby's christening dress, the inscription on a photograph.

Quintana emerges as a lovely and precocious but troubled child who became a more troubled young woman.

"Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes," is how Didion describes what would later be labeled Quintana's manic depression, then obsessive compulsive disorder, and finally as borderline personality disorder. The doctors, she notes bleakly, always had a new diagnosis, but never one that led to "any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility."

As always, Didion's aim is true. Foremost among those taking the hits is herself. As she thinks about the early signs that Quintana was troubled, she asks point-blank the question that no parent wants to consider.

"Was I the problem?" she asks. "Was I always the problem?"

Her musings on parenthood will resonate with everyone who has trod that mine-laden path.

"I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies."

"Blue Nights" has, by this reader's count, exactly two funny moments and many more that are unbearably sad. It is at once a sentimental book and one that rejects sentimentality.

"I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted," she writes after sorting through mementoes -- her husband's Burberry raincoats, her daughter's suede jacket, her mother's jet beads.

"In theory, these mementos serve to bring back the moment."

Then the devastating self-judgment: "They serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."

"Blue Nights" is, in a sense, an yet-unhappier sequel to Didion's much admired 2005 memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," which followed the unexpected death of her soul mate and husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. This pair of introspective memoirs does not constitute an entirely new genre for Didion; her essay, "The White Album," published in 1979, detailed her own nervous breakdown against a backdrop of political upheaval and social unrest.

But these latest memoirs are nevertheless a departure for a writer who more than four decades ago emerged as one of the best of the so-called New Journalists, using the techniques of fiction-writing to enliven her deep reporting on subjects as various as the death camps of El Salvador and California's counterculture.

Didion once wrote that the secret of her journalism was her ability to go unnoticed.

"My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate, that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." (Her longtime friend Calvin Trillin memorably described Didion another way: "She is tougher than she looks, but then anyone is tougher than she looks.")

Now she reflects on the life she was living while those books were being written: the California house and the high-end hotels around the world where Quintana was raised; the delusional plan to take an infant on a reporting trip to Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War; the child who remembers a mother's refrain as "brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush, I'm working"; the same child whose script-writing parents were so involved with Hollywood that she identified part of her makeshift doll house as a projection room with Dolby sound.

With affecting repetition, Didion fixes on phrases, jumping from one scene to another and back again over the nearly 40 years from Quintana's adoption through her descent into illness. She gives the lie to the words we have all heard and used.

"You have your wonderful memories, people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone."

Yet "Blue Nights" is suffused with memories. And with loss.

In Didion's hands, these subjects are fresh. They tap our own pain, our own grief. Out of their specificity, a universal truth arises: Life is loss. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, as Janis Joplin sang.

Didion explores her own aging into an increasingly frail woman, one she hardly recognizes.

She ponders a hospital form's question of who her emergency contact might be. Who might "need to know"? No one comes to mind.

She mentions other deaths -- including that of her niece Dominique Dunne, whose former boyfriend strangled her outside her Hollywood home in 1982. Again, detachment and devastation: "It occurred to me as I walked home that I had seen too many people for the last time in one or another ICU."

And she thinks of Quintana's offhand advice: "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it."

But dwell she must.

Never cheerful, Didion moves here to new depths of dark introspection. Pain is written in every line -- but so perceptively, so piercingly, so beautifully, that we must read on.

This reader absorbed the 188 pages in a single night, convinced by the end that there is no other writer in America who combines such originality of insight with such impressive stylistic chops.

Read it, by all means, and know that a great talent is at work. But be prepared: As you turn the pages that smolder with sorrow and despair, "Blue Nights" may scorch your fingertips even as it breaks your heart.

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The Buffalo News.


Blue Nights

By Joan Didion


188 pages, $25