May 6, 2008
Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking
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.
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?