Wednesday, August 20, 2014


2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion


As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

This is a true memoir as opposed to an autobiography of whine. Some people write their memoirs as a reporting on what happened to their lives: usually sad, humiliating, and/or disgusting. They do not enter into their own feelings about these events so much. A true memoir, on the other hand, is all about the intensely intimate, the person's feelings in reaction to or in anticipation of events. And in Joan Didion's hands, the memoir is elevated to an art form in the sparseness of her prose, her unflinching honesty in her thoughts and actions, and an in-depth examination of her feelings then and now to events preceding and succeeding The Event.

The inciting event: "At approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death."

The secondary inciting event: "Our only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five night unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's singer Division, [...] where what had seemed a case of December flue sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

Quintana, after a long illness with relapses, eventually recovered and came home. Dunne never did.

In the days following Dunne's death, while Didion had to maintain a strong front, "I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things," she suffered from a sense of unreality and tacit denials. "I found myself wondering [in New York City], with no sense of illogic, if it [John's death] has also happened in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)" and "How could he come back if they took his organs [at the autopsy], how could he come back if he had no shoes?"

The day after the funeral in March, which was as public a declaration of death as any, she took herself in hand and allowed herself to think about what she needed to do to start the next phase of her life. "Cleaning up my office could be a step toward the first day of the rest of my life." Despite this decision, in the quotidian, her sense of reality remained fluid. "I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believe that what had happened remained reversible." Episcopalians say at the graveside: "In the midst of life we are in death," and this was so true for Didion.

There are refrains that like ostinatos in music come up again and again throughout the narrative.
"Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."
"You sit down to dinner. And then—gone."
"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Posthumously, she recognizes that there were conversations with and actions on Dunne's part that revealed that perhaps on some deep subconscious level he had some knowledge of his impending death. Gawain of the medieval prose-poem Chanson de Roland when asked, "Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?" replies, "I tell you that I shall not live two days." Didion keeps discovering bits and pieces of their recent past where she should've listened closely and understood what Dunne was trying to tell her. She doesn't beat herself up about it, but it is with a sense of regret that she acknowledges her lack of attentiveness.

Her meditation on grief is aching in its sense of catching her by surprise by its intensity and its longevity. "We do not expect to be literally crazy, [...believing] that their husband is about to return. We imagine initially that we will eventually recover, that grief will lessen. What can never be anticipated is the unending loss, the space that is always empty beside you," the unending succession of memories...

Didion talks a lot about what she calls a "vortex effect," where a memory is triggered by a glance at a place or a song or a smell. She starts avoiding places in order to prevent disappearing down rabbit holes and the painful return to reality.

Her husband features in these trips down memory lane far, far more than her daughter, and it's mostly when her daughter was a little girl, not other ages. This struck me as very curious. Did she feel detachment towards her daughter because she was so attached to her husband? She comes across as an unemotional person on the whole, which is not to say that she doesn't feel things intensely. On the contrary. This book goes to show that what is not apparent on the surface is very deeply felt, and it is profoundly private. This is what makes this book so powerful: In her most difficult time of grieving, she volunteers this look into her most private self to a society that considers mourning as wallowing in self-pity. That took tremendous courage.

Towards the end of the book, she writes that she does not want to finish this account, because she's afraid that she'll then have to face up to her sense of John alive as becoming "more remote, softened, transmuted into whatever best serves" her future life without him. "I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. When we mourn our losses, we also mourn ourselves. 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."


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