Monday, July 12, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking -- Joan Didion

I'm not really sure how to review this book.

I try pretty hard to follow the rules for book reviews established by the late, great John Updike. His first rule, "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt," is the hardest one to follow, I think. We all begin a book with a certain amount of expectation, based on the cover, or previous knowledge of the author, or the brief synopsis provided by a friend. It becomes difficult, then, to separate out your impression of the book itself from what you thought the book ought to be.

I first heard of The Year of Magical Thinking when I listened to a Fresh Air episode in which Terry Gross interviewed Joan Didion -- it was shortly after the book was published in 2005. Since then, I learned it won the National Book Award (and was nominated for a Pulitzer) and I heard positive reviews from several friends whose taste in books I trust. I knew that it would be a downer of a read, so I waited quite a while before giving it a go -- and once I did, I read it almost in one sitting.

In late 2003, Joan Didion and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, were startled to learn that their only daughter Quintana had been rushed to the hospital and lay in a coma. About a week into her illness, Didion and Dunne returned home one night from visiting her bedside when Dunne was suddenly stricken by a heart attack during dinner and died moments later. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's memoir about the year following her husband's death, as she grappled with the devastating loss of her partner in life as well as the difficulty of having a desperately ill daughter (Quintana died shortly before the publication of the book).

The book is an intensely personal look at Didion's journey through terrible loss, often closely mirroring the stages of grief which have no become so entrenched in our understanding of coping with the death of a loved one. From the moment of her husband's death, Didion becomes what a hospital social worker calls "a pretty cool customer." This cool, rational exterior masks complete chaos underneath: a woman who agrees to have an autopsy done on her husband so that, once they find out what went wrong, they can fix it; a woman who organizes the funeral but can't handle the idea of seeing the obituaries because then her husband will really be dead. Didion reels from her passage in and out of what she deems her "magical thinking": travels through time and reason triggered by objects, places, and people she encounters by chance each day. As we read, we are taken backwards and forwards in time and space with Didion (she calls this "the vortex effect") to different moments of her marriage and of her experience as a mother -- some good, some painful -- as often as we are given a glimpse into her life now, as a widow and worried caretaker for her gravely ill daughter.

I've never read anything by Didion before, and I was taken by the simple beauty of her prose. (Interestingly, Didion notes that she was afraid to write after Dunne's death, as he had always been her first reader and editor and she wasn't sure she would know when something was good enough without him.) In one of her "present day" passages (as opposed to her tangential reminisces), she writes that "grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. ... We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself" (188-199, Vintage 2005 paperback edition). What makes her prose so powerful is that she is both writing from a distance -- evaluating her experiences with the critical eye of a journalist or investigator -- and yet acknowledges that she has not yet come out on the other side and is still wrecked by grief and loss, removing her ability to have any distance at all.

And this is why I'm having trouble knowing how to write about her book. I think that, for Didion, writing the book was a way of making her husband's death real to her. I think it is a painfully beautiful piece of writing. But I'm not sure I understand exactly what her purpose might have been beyond writing for herself. The book can be hard to follow because of her jumps in time, and some parts sound polished and perfected while others feel raw, unedited, and muddled. Is this intentional on Didion's part, or was her authorial intent subverted and abused by an editor or publisher who knew that an intimate portrait of grief would be eaten up by commercial audiences who have a tendency towards voyeurism when it comes to celebrity death?

"Would I ever be right again?" Didion writes late in her book. "Could I ever trust myself not to be wrong?" (214). I wonder what Didion will think of this book ten years from now -- if writing out her sorrow for the world to see was the right thing to do. It was certainly the brave thing, even if it was created during a time of magical thinking.

Final Verdict: ***


  1. I also had an ambivalent response to the book, yet found it very compelling reading (and beautiful prose, as well.)

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