The Year of Magical Thinking
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.
These are the first words in Joan Didion’s new book, The Year of Magical Thinking. They are also the first words she set down a day or two after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died of a “sudden massive coronary event” at dinner in their New York apartment on December 30, 2003. They are words that recur throughout the book, as if prompting the stream of reflections that emerge during Didion’s yearlong struggle with Dunne’s death and the splintering of her life. It was not until October 4, 2004, that she began to write the book in earnest, but these initial sentences, spilled onto her computer in the wake of Dunne’s collapse, and while their only daughter lay comatose in a hospital across town, contain the germ of the memoir’s narrative and the main line of its inquiry. How does one live through such wrenching changes? How does one avoid self-pity at such losses? How does one endure the temporary insanity of grief? How does one mourn in a culture that has no time for death, makes no allowance for grief, and fears talking about either? Whatever else she does here, Didion talks about death, about grief, and in shattering, immediate ways. Hers is an eloquent testimony to what many have doubtless experienced but few have been able to describe with so much power and penetration.
Didion has famously said that she does not know what she thinks until she writes it down. All of her instincts as a journalist tell her that when she is uncertain about what something means, the best plan is to “read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” This is what she does following Dunne’s death. She spends months finding her way to information, cobbling together whatever seems helpful: from poets and psychologists, doctors and etiquette writers. She researches her husband’s case, grills physicians about her daughter’s condition, sifts through the assembled medical facts, retraces the chronology of events, even rereads her husband’s novels. She works it all up and writes it all down, producing a narrative that she hopes will give meaning to death’s meaninglessness, a narrative that will tell her how to think about losing her partner of forty years and how to handle the threat of losing her only child.
Didion’s first collection of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), began with her confession that the title essay was a way, in a time of cultural crisis, “to come to terms with disorder.” The White Album (1979), written a decade of cultural atomization later, began with her claim that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In this memoir, the motive behind Didion’s writing remains the same: She is clearly trying to tell herself a story that will allow her to go on in the face of a life now wildly disordered.
While she pursues this rational business of compiling facts and shaping information, while she appears to be handling things intelligently and with admirable poise and efficiency (the social worker on that first evening at the hospital calls her “a pretty cool customer”), she is actually going crazy. She is, she says, thinking magically, and “magical thinking,” which characterizes Didion’s behavior for the year of 2004, is thinking that is simply irrational. It is thinking like a child, where what is wished for can happen, what is imagined must be true, what cannot be accepted is therefore not true. She knows this is crazy but cannot proceed otherwise. Only when she receives the autopsy results, almost a full year later than she should have, can she finally admit the fact of Dunne’s death, the fact of his being gone for good. For months she has nursed the belief that if she did not read the obituary notice, he would not be dead. She could not throw out Dunne’s shoes because he would be returning and would need them; she could not throw out the broken alarm clock or the Buffalo pens long gone dry because he would be back and would want them. She lives by signs, probing everything for symbolic meaning. His dictionary opened to a particular page must signify something, and inadvertently turning over the page means she has lost the crucial message. She lives ritualistically, doing things that will ensure his return, ignoring evidence that says he will not. This, she discovers, is the madness of grief at work, and even though it subsides by the end of this first year, it is a genuine state of madness while it lasts and one which she explores with harrowing precision.
What Didion is most at pains to convey is that grief is not what one expects it to be. It is not the same as mourning, and it does not hit at once. As the initial shock of...
(The entire section is 1961 words.)