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Joan Didion:

The Year of Magical Thinking

It was so gloomy the other day that I spent most of the afternoon in bed, reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005). It is always satisfying to read a good book in one go. But this book has a quality that I don't think I'd have noticed if I read it sporadically. That is its vulnerability. How can a book be vulnerable? Well, it can be incomplete. From our window, I see where Beth Israel North Hospital used to stand; it has been demolished, and will be replaced by an apartment block that will block part of our view of the horizon. Ms Didion's daughter, Quintana Roo, who was hospitalized there for the better part of a month, almost two years ago, died this summer, while her mother's book hung between galleys and publication. The book, in short, does not tell you the whole story.

No book tells the whole story. What writers do, though, is to create a plausible narrative and say, "That's the whole story." Ms Didion doesn't begin to make this pretence in her new book, which is a record of grief deferred at the same time that it is an act of mourning. It is not told in any obvious order, although I'm sure that it will be taken apart and shown to be quite ingeniously constructed. Any capsule summary is bound to be off-putting; just yesterday, a friend wrote to say that she wasn't inclined to read this book simply because of its doleful subject matter. Why, given everything else that you've got to deal with, would you voluntarily read an account of loss as deep as this?

It's my job, I suppose, to tell you. And not to waste your time attesting to the book's "monumental importance." It's much too soon to guess how "important" The Year of Magical Thinking is going to prove to be. And you already knew that death and mourning are important subjects. That in itself is perhaps a turn-off. Nor can I say that the book is "moving." If it were "moving," it would be unbearable. I suppose that that's actually a strong point. Don't worry about being confronted with someone's gut-wrenching, heart-rending memories. Ms Didion is much too brisk and too clinical to tart up her story with manipulative devices. And what she's describing is her own crazy behavior. Outwardly, she seemed to be a "cool customer." Of course she did. Is there a customer cooler than Joan Didion? But inside, she was nuts. She wouldn't give her late husband's shoes away, for example, because he'd need them when he "came back." To get rid of an old travel clock that couldn't be repaired would be an abandonment, an act of disloyalty. As of the final galley, she still had both the shoes and the clock, and these are proof that, while she might understand herself a little better, she hasn't resolved some important issues. 

To whom, though, would it be disloyal to throw away an old clock? To reorganize and possibly shelve the late writer's reading pile? The answer is not simple. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, married in 1964, spent nearly forty years together, not as most husband and wives do, but literally together, as writers working from home. They had their independent trips, of course, but for the most part they were always together. There was, it appears, some sulking and much brooding; surely one of the book's great accomplishment is its dismissal of the idea that a good marriage is a "happy" one. After nearly forty years, "I love you" means something that no newlywed can begin to imagine. (Trust me.) Pull the plug on lives so intertwined, and what do you have? In this case, you have the mother of a daughter in ICU, mysteriously but catastrophically ill - a sort of happy accident. You have a writer who has never published a thing that her late husband didn't edit. You have someone who had no idea of how strangely her husband's death would affect her. Someone who would scoff at the utility of the very real magical thinking with which Joan Didion averted the horror of her loss. Its interruption. Whatever else happens, the opening lines of The Year of Magical Thinking are probably doomed to quotability:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.


One topic that interested me greatly was luck. Faithful readers will recognize this as an issue of some importance to me, because I think that it's not only stupid but disfiguring to deny that luck leads to success. And people with Joan Didion's old-style Republican background are among the stoutest deniers of luck. They have made their own successes, thank you very much! In the following passage, Ms Didion shows how grief eventually changed her thinking about luck. (I have elided an anecdote.)

I kept saying to myself that I had been lucky all my life. The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me the right to think of myself as unlucky now.

This was what passed for staying on top of the self-pity question.

I even believed it.

Only at a later point did I begin to wonder: what exactly did "luck" have to do with it. I could not on examination locate any actual instances of "luck" in my history.


Consider this matter of "luck."

Not only did I not believe that "bad luck" had killed John and struck Quintana but in fact I believed precisely the opposite: I believed that I should have been able to prevent whatever happened. Only after the dream about being left on the tarmac at the Santa Monica Airport did it occur to me that there was a level on which I was not actually holding myself responsible. I was holding John and Quintana responsible, a significant difference but not one that took me anywhere that I needed to be, For once in your life just let it go.

This is fairly compressed material. There is an initial position - feeling unlucky for the first time in her life. Then there is a reversion to the theory that luck played no role in her history. But if this were true, then she was responsible for her husband's death and her daughter's illness. The only alternative was that they were responsible. In a luckless world, someone is always responsible. Finally, she considers her husband's exhortation: let it go. Let the assigning of responsibility go. Luck begins where responsibility ends, but Ms Didion can't bring herself to say so.

That she cannot "locate any actual instances of 'luck'" is almost a character trait. How does she account for her native intelligence? Her youth in a large and nurturing extended family? Did luck have nothing to do with her winning the Vogue Magazine Prix de Paris? And, finally, what about meeting her husband? To what extent did she arrange that?


Ms Didion is such a cool customer that, at one point during her Year of Magical Thinking, she was told by an ear doctor that her eardrums were swollen not by infection but by backed-up tears. Later, she learns to weep more freely.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none.

I did not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and as February becomes summer, certain things will happen. 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 fact this is already beginning to happen. All year I have been keeping time by last year's calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner, is it the day a year ago we flew to Honolulu after Quintana's wedding, it is the day a year ago we flew back from Paris, is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.

I was crossing Lexington Avenue when this occurred to me.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.

In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic.

The Year of Magical Thinking resolves itself quite rapidly into the partial portrait of a very rich marriage, a portrait taken from the perspective of its termination by sudden death. Anecdotes that do not have some bearing on a given crisis of Ms Didion's Year are few and far between, and what we're told of forty years with John Gregory Dunne is very far indeed from "the whole story." In many ways, the book is more a letter than a story, and perhaps it is that immediacy, that sense (certainly illusory) that Ms Didion is telling you things as they come to mind, that will contribute to its success.

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