Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.


“Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” writes Joan Didion in Blue Nights (Knopf; $25), her meditation on the fears and risks of parenthood. It’s an uneasy admission, at odds with her current preoccupations yet also their point of departure. Didion’s earlier book The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the period after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, when their daughter, Quintana Roo, was hospitalized for a series of debilitating illnesses, was an explicit act of survival, its writing so inextricably tied to the necessity of passing through that initial stretch of loss and grief that Didion refused to amend the text when Quintana died of pancreatitis shortly after the manuscript was finished. Thoughts of the past registered as an ambush, their “vortex effect” triggered by the Pacific Coast Highway or ice floes on the East River.

At half a decade’s remove from Quintana’s death, Blue Nights is steeped in a memory, though a stringently selective one: the key hospital here is St. John’s in Santa Monica, whose obstetrician phones Didion and Dunne to report that a “beautiful baby girl” is up for adoption. Didion returns to Quintana’s childhood as if to guard her there, but she’s the last person to be deceived by such conceits. As she wanders through those early years, examining photographs taken, stories written and phone calls made by a 5-year-old Quintana to the Camarillo mental hospital (“to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy”) and Twentieth Century Fox (“to find out what she needed to do to be a star”) for signs of her daughter’s later distress and depression, Didion circles the question all parents, adoptive ones perhaps most poignantly, ask and avoid: “What if I fail to take care of this baby?”

Other hospitals have cameos in Blue Nights, most startlingly New York City’s Lenox Hill, where Didion is admitted after passing out in her bedroom and waking in a pool of blood. The image of Didion that lingers in the mind from The Year of Magical Thinking is of a woman standing in an LA hospital lobby, dressed in scrubs as if surgical gear could grant healing powers: “So profound was the isolation in which I was then operating that it did not immediately occur to me that for the mother of a patient to show up at the hospital wearing blue cotton scrubs could only be viewed as a suspicious violation of boundaries.” Didion is now the inpatient, her strength failing at home and in the street. A cruel question forms: whom to notify in case of an emergency? “I need to know if you want her,” the obstetrician had asked in 1966. The most public of notifications and the most private of letters, Blue Nights offers an answer: “She is of course the one person who needs to know.”

* * *

Last march the commission on Wartime Contracting gave Congress its evaluation of the State Department’s ability to take over in Iraq after the Army’s scheduled departure at the end of 2011. The report’s title alone, “Iraq—A Forgotten Mission?,” suggests the prognosis isn’t good, a warning amplified by Peter Van Buren’s account of the misguided method to State’s madness, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan; $25). A Foreign Service officer for more than twenty years, Van Buren had no experience in the Middle East when he signed up in 2009 to lead Provincial Reconstruction Teams embedded on two US military bases. As he tells it, the State Department, scuttling around in the shadow of the military’s wealth and clout, is operating according to a kind of pauper’s logic, playing at luxury by squandering taxpayers’ cash on soft-power projects that run the gamut from the unconsidered to the spectacularly dumb.

There are the beekeeping kits purchased for widows before anyone bothers to wonder whether widows are interested in keeping bees; the Internet connection supplied to schools that lack furniture and electricity; the multimillion-dollar chicken-processing plant that never opens because the “market research” claiming Iraqis would pay premium for fresh halal chicken had been invented for press releases. On the afternoon a few “Embassy war tourists” stop by the poultry plant for a jaunt outside the Green Zone, State stirs the Potemkin operation into the semblance of functionality by shelling out for chickens no locals can afford. When it comes to photo opportunities, lunch, apparently, is on the house. “We dined well,” Van Buren quips, “and, as a bonus, consumed the evidence of our fraud.”

Despite the risks of such frankness for Van Buren—he is currently the subject of a State Department investigation—he writes with the sardonic candor of a man too intent on recounting the absurdities he has witnessed to worry about what he has to lose. We Meant Well has none of the polish or reportorial expertise of classics in the Iraq-disaster genre like Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) and Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006), and its slapdash sourcing of facts and figures seems more indebted to Wikipedia-style research than to reporting. The virtue of the telling is, of all things, its hilarity, the politically incorrect, pop-inflected gallows humor exposing the litany of bungles through the damning lens of farce. “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head,” Van Buren quotes an Iraqi as saying. “Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.” If the image suggests a tea party held at Abu Ghraib, it may prove as representative of the flippancy and ineptness of a State Department–run Iraq as the photos of torture were of an earlier phase of a shapeless, unnecessary war.

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