May 6, 2008

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted in Didion Joan at 8:06 am by John Self

As usual there are three stages in getting to read this book: wanting to, acquiring, and actually beginning. I wanted to read it when it was published, partly because I’d heard of the author but didion’t know much about her, and partly because I loved the way the cover of the hardback expressed the subject of the book – Didion’s grief over the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne – so cleverly and movingly.

The Year of Magical Thinking

But I didn’t buy it until last year, when the less beautiful paperback was on sale for half price in a local bookshop’s closing down sale. And there it sat on my shelves until the book came back into the limelight recently, with its theatrical production in London as a monologue starring Vanessa Redgrave. Depressing really to think how many factors must coalesce just to get me to read one book. How many others are going to the wall just because Vanessa Redgrave hasn’t got her finger out?

Didion tells us:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed [John's death], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. 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 the words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

There is no impenetrable polish in The Year of Magical Thinking, which often seems not so much an investigation of grief as an expression of it. Didion wrote it in the months which ended the first year of her life without Dunne, when the wound was still open. In the course of the book, Didion goes through several of the known stages of grief, beginning with denial: she throws out Dunne’s clothes but keeps his shoes because “he would need shoes if he was to return.” When she is given his personal possessions by the hospital, she organises the banknotes in the wallet in with her own, in order of denomination: “I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things.”

There’s a sense that we are spying on someone vulnerable: Didion’s intelligence and the fact that she chose to write and publish the book do not cloud the clear feeling that even as the book ends, this is a woman who is far from through with the grieving process. Near the end she acknowledges this: “the craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” Indeed she finds that she does not want to enter a recovery process, because

my image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even ‘mudgy’, softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him.

In that sense, the book is an attempt to cheat this softening of the edges of memory, to fix in place forever the bright unignorable moments from his sudden silence as Didion was making dinner (“John was talking, then he wasn’t”) through to the dash to hospital by ambulance, where two people go in and one person comes out.

There is a complicating factor in all this, which is that at the time Dunne died and Didion was beginning to grieve, their adopted – only – daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in hospital. (On the night of Dunne’s death they had just returned from visiting her.) Didion writes a lot – too much – about Quintana’s illness through the course of the book, and these seem like a distraction. Then I learned that, after the book was completed but a few weeks before it was published, Quintana died also. The obsessive recounting of her illness now seems like the sort of foreshadowing which she discusses in Dunne’s case: she interprets various innocuous comments made by him in the days before his death as intimations of mortality on his part. Again these are presented straight-faced, and it’s hard to know whether Didion is knowingly acknowledging her own grief-stricken blindness, or just in a muddle in the middle of it.

One quote on the cover of the book suggests that it will “maybe comfort anyone who has lost forever the one they loved.” I doubt that, but it may provide understanding to those, like me, who have been lucky enough not to undergo – yet – even the ‘normal’ grief of losing parents, let alone a partner or a child. The Year of Magical Thinking cannot necessarily help that process, but it can warn the unwary up-front of the sort of ‘temporary madness’ that can arise, and that can be endured.

Curiously, what the book left me with most was a desire to read not only some of Didion’s other books, but also Dunne’s novels: both their books are quoted in excerpts throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, as it becomes as much a memoir of two writers’ lives together as it does of the survival of one. Titles like Playland were familiar to me already, and now I want to know more. And what greater purpose could this book serve than to enable Dunne – to enable any writer – to live again in the minds of others, who read his books long after his death?

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20 Comments »

  1. Nick said,

    I read this one some time back, John, and found it very interesting and engaging. But it seemed to me she was talking more about the domestic practicalities of dealing with his death rather than the raw reality of grief – probably because she was still trying to prevent any serious grieving and convince herself he remained alive. It seemed to be more about the attempt to deny reality and continue as if nothing had changed. Which is a fascinating subject in itself because it’s such a common reaction to tragedy. Like you I haven’t yet suffered any serious personal loss in my own life so I’ve no idea how exactly I would deal with it.

  2. John Self said,

    I think that’s right Nick, but to me it seemed that this attempt not to grieve was itself the first stage of grief: and by the end of the book (written about a year after the death), Didion is beginning to move on without really wanting to.

    By the way that little icon which has appeared beside your name is your ‘identicon’ – an image automatically generated from an algorithm based on the personal details you submit when making a comment, so it should stay the same whenever you leave a comment here. It will appear now for anyone without a WordPress login. Hope you like blue!

  3. chartroose said,

    I tried reading this awhile back, and had to put it down after a couple of chapters. This is not a good book to read if someone you care about has just died.

    Didion is a good writer, though. I’ve read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It’s probably pretty dated now, but at the time I was quite impressed with her erudition.

    We should try some of her fiction!

  4. John Self said,

    That sounds like a deal chartroose! As it happens I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem (for the record, it’s one of those titles which I’ve always felt proves that you can’t just lift a line from a great poem and get a great title) in a charity shop cheaply not so long ago, but I will look out her fiction also. Play It As It Lays has been well liked by people I trust.

  5. jem said,

    I was looking forward to this book too. But somehow it fell a little bit short – being slightly less insightful and acute than I had hoped. I couldn’t put my finger on the cause of the failing, but now I’ve read your review I wonder if it was clouded by the daughters illness.

    I liked ‘Slouching’ a lot – although certain parts date more than others. I read ‘Play It as It Lays’ a long time ago and don’t remember much about it, but that probably says more about me than the book.

    In all I really enjoy Didion. I think she shows that a woman can write intelligently while still remaining vibrant and engaging.

  6. Isabel said,

    I received a free hardback copy and had to give it away. I was too sad for me.

    The person who received it was happy to read it.

  7. JRSM said,

    I’ve not read any Didion, despite having a couple of her books in the teetering piles. I haven’t read any of Dunne’s novels, either, However, I have read his two books about his experiences (with Joan) as a screenwriter: they’re my favourite kind of film books, examining the point at which art and commerce collide, with commerce inevitably winning. The best is ‘The Studio’, with ‘Monster’ a very close second.

  8. herschelian said,

    I think that this is a marvellous book, her ability to write so coherently about her grief is very moving indeed. I am not sure that it would be the book to read if one had just lost someone close to you….but given time I think anyone who has suffered grief will recognise aspects of their own loss in her writing. I too was taken with the idea of reading other work by her and by Dunne – but so far have only managed a couple of articles she’d written some time ago.
    This book was discussed at my book group a year or so ago, and one or two of our number reacted surprisingly to it. They took a personal dislike of Didion herself, in particular for her advocacy for the medical treatment of her daughter in California. They simply couldn’t accept that it was part of the “magical thinking” of her grief, and thought she was pushy and stupid to go head to head with the doctors. It was a lively, heated discussion to say the least!

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks everyone for the range of views on this and related Didion/Dunne stuff.

    herschelian, I think I can understand where the book groupers are coming from, particularly when she turned up at her daughter’s hospital wearing blue scrubs! But it’s natural and normal to question doctors over their opinion – the newspapers (and cemeteries) are scattered with examples of them getting it wrong.

    I liked her observation of the way the social worker assigned to her on her husband’s death withdrew pretty quickly, observing to his colleague, “This one’s a pretty cool customer” – clearly mistaking shock for composure.

  10. Brad Listi said,

    I’ve been meaning to read Didion’s book, but every time I think about it, I wind up shying away. Heavy stuff. I don’t know. I don’t usually shy away from heavy stuff, per se, but this one has kept me away for some reason. It’s kind of like when I see ‘Sophie’s Choice’ on my cable television menu when I’m flipping around. I avoid that one like the plague, even though I’m drawn to it.

  11. nico said,

    Hi John, I read this book a couple of years ago, and it helped me a lot, because I had a painful loss, but it was so horrible to find out about the daughter, afterwards; something that she avoids in the book. But I agree with most: that day-to day explanations are part of the mourning process. Still, I don´t know if the book would be helpful to everybody.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks nico, that’s good to know.

    Brad, I know exactly what you mean. I have a similar attraction-repulsion thing going on with the sort of ‘horror’ films friends recommend such as The Innocents or The Orphanage. I really don’t like voluntarily being frightened so I avoid them, even though I know on one level I would find them a satisfying artistic experience.

  13. suki said,

    In her early writings, ie: esp “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” Didion is sharp, insightful and full of irony. Read it long ago. The above book, I have had on my shelf for quite a while. I began it then put it down. Quite fascinating that Redgrave is doing a monologue from it. Ok. Like you, this may persuade me to take it down from the shelf and try again. Interesting woman and interesting couple.

  14. A. said,

    I too was new to Didion, but had read so many good reviews of the book, I wanted to read it. I loved it. Even though it made me want to cry with each turn of the page. My mom was going through an awful illness at the same time, and I think reading about Didion’s grief was helpful for me. I didn’t feel so alone in my thoughts. A lovely read.

    Glad to have found your blog. :)

  15. John Self said,

    And you too, A.! I’m glad the book was helpful to you – I’m happy to have been proved wrong about that!

  16. I’ve read almost everything Didion’s written, and *Year* was not, I found, her strongest book. As she’s gotten older, her style has become less supple, I think – she’s always been mannered though, so maybe it’s just that I’ve read enough of her to be unsurprised by her take on things. There’s no question that the topic is devastating, but as you say, it’s the work of someone still grieving, and therefore so personal that it couldn’t be as engaging as her other work. Didion’s great gift is distance — the cold eye of the independent mind — and she couldn’t, obviously, bring that to bear here in its full force.

    For what it’s worth, *Play It As it Lays* isn’t her best novel; for that honor, I strongly recommend *A Book of Common Prayer* or *Democracy*. Her ability to write about how the self-absorbed foreign policy conceived within the Washington, D.C. beltway impacts the lives of ordinary people far away is unparalleled. Also, purely from a technical point of view, her ability to catch and use idiom and to set up scene with multiple people talking at cross-purposes is amazing.

    I’d also argue that her essay collections – *Slouching* and *The White Album* in particular — aren’t dated, though their subject matter might be. She’s one of the sharpest writers out there.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for the guidance Benjamin: one thing you can be sure of when you name an author is that everyone will have a different favourite among their books! As mentioned above, I already have Slouching towards Bethlehem so will have a look at that, and then pick up one of her novels, perhaps by sticking a pin in a list…

  18. Natasha said,

    A belated comment, I realise, but if you haven’t dug into Slouching yet, it’s definitely worth reading. Ditto The White Album. Her novels have never worked for me in quite the same way. Of Play It As It Lays I have a memory only of heat-soaked bleakness, though it was some years ago that I read it, I should probably revisit it at some point.

    I have been enjoying wallowing your archives!

  19. John Self said,

    Thanks Natasha, for the kind comments and the tips on Didion. It’s never too late to leave a comment here, though it does invariably remind me of books I can scarcely remember reading just a year later, and also of the books in the comments section which I’ve promised to read and haven’t got anywhere near yet…

  20. Lee Monks said,

    Play It As It Lays is a brilliant exercise in scorched ennui and psychological vacuity, with the kind of clipped, ratcheted dialogue you scarcely encounter. I rather think Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney might’ve read it at some point!


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