Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

The point of all magic, of all ceremony, is control. By turning our fear and grief to ritual we reestablish our dominion over the world, regain the illusion, so important to us, of being able to cope. This is all faith amounts to – a willing suspension of disbelief, a renewal of the idea that the world is somehow for us, about us. The christian tradition emphasises guilt because guilt implies agency, implies the possibility of choice. We are mistaken, we have sinned, we have not simply been overtaken by circumstance. This is both fiction and the opposite of fiction. Tennessee Williams writes: “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” This is the logic of the voodoo doll – by replicating the truth as a work of art we impose our will upon it, or imagine that we could so impose our will if we chose to. This does not make the truth any easier to understand – it is not about trying to ‘make sense of what happened’ – but it may make it easier to accept.

It is in this sense that Joan Didion’s touching, exquisite new book is truly magical. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s account of a year in her life following the death of her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003. It is a moving chronicle of grief [2], loss and memory, an unparalleled portrait of a mind in anguish, struggling to adjust to the violence of the truth, struggling not so much to heal as to survive, to protect itself from its own worst demons. Didion writes: “This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, 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.” It is a moving book because of the intense honesty that Didion brings to this enterprise, her unwillingness to stylise, to fictionalise. This is the non-fiction book of the year because of the way it manages to impose a clarity of treatment without ever deteriorating into fiction. Berryman writes: “He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.” It’s the image that best sums up this book.

Three things make The Year of Magical Thinking the marvellous book it is. First, there’s the writing itself. Didion is a master of clear, eloquent prose; her sentences have a formal, almost incantatory precision that bursts upon you like the freshness of newly laundered sheets. She is a writer who can be both grand and exact at the same time, her language at once careful and breathtaking. Her writing is a mesmerising mirror to stare into at any time, but when the face it shows you is so haunting, the effect is only enhanced.

The second thing that makes this book so effective is, of course, the fact that it is non-fiction. If Didion (or any other writer) had written a book of fiction where the narrator undergoes exactly the same experiences, we might have dismissed it as improbable, unrealistic, overdone. The fact that the events she writes about actually happened makes the book darker, more frightening. The way no amount of fancy special effects can ever replicate the horror of actual war footage. This apprehension of the overwhelming consequence of reality is itself a magical, or at least a superstitous one. It’s as though we genuinely believed that those who had died had somehow been sacrificed for the making of what we were seeing or reading. As if this book, this image, this newsreel was the purpose of their deaths.

What makes the eerie closeness of this reality even scarier in this case is the epilogue that we know will follow, though Didion herself is yet to discover – the death of her only daughter, Quintana (who is greviously ill for large parts of the book, but recovers by the end of it), in August this year. There is a vicarious element to this horror, an almost voyeuristic interest in another person’s tragedy, but there is also a deep well-spring of empathy. We have all known or imagined the death of a loved one; we all live, every day of our lives, with the knowledge, not of our own mortality, but of the mortality of those we care for. It could happen to me, you think, reading the book, in fact, it almost certainly will. That is why it is so easy to imagine yourself in Didion’s position, and while you may at first dislike her for raising such ghosts, you will come, by the end of the book, to be grateful for her courage, her clear-headedness, in confronting them.

What makes The Year of Magical Thinking so special to me, though, is the way in which Didion copes with her loss. Confronted with disaster, Didion retreats into a world of ideas, of detail and language, of poetry and information. (“In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control“). Memory is the enemy here, because it brings on a rawness of feeling that is not to be tolerated. If we can only analyse the situation, if we can only verbalise it, explain it to ourselves, categorise and cross-reference it in some frame of thought, we will be able to deal with it. This is the pathology of the hyper-intellectual, the reaction of those who, though they may appreciate the solicitude of other people, can never find true solace in it, and whose last refuge must always be in their own minds. Didion uses facts to understand her loss – reading reference books, downloading data from the Internet – she uses poetry (in the course of the book she quotes cummings, Auden, Eliot, Hopkins, Schwartz and Shakespeare). This is a reaction I recognise, because it is my own. I do not turn to people in search of solace. If it is comfort I need, I turn to Shelley and Donne, to Eliot and Browning and Shakespeare; I turn to Schubert and Mozart. That is why Didion’s nightmare seems so authentic, so compelling – as I sat reading the book with tears rolling down my face it occured to me it was not her grief I was crying for, it was my own. Plath writes “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions./ Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. /I am not cruel, only truthful“. Didion’s book has the same quality.

In the end, Didion’s discovery is that this retreat into the facts does not help. Or rather, that it helps, but not in the way that one supposes. It helps in that it sustains us, keeps us alive; but it does not make the truth any easier to confront when we finally get around to confronting it. The magic that Didion is seeking to deploy through this book is only that – a trick, a sleight of hand – important to our sanity, but ultimately little more than a diversion. The reality of emotion cannot be conjured away by the wave of a magic wand, or the chanting of sentences, no matter how beautiful. The journey to recovery is hard fought and never complete. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it“, Didion writes. And it is watching the aching steadfastness of the way that Didion explores this new place that makes this book both immediate and timeless.

As I finished the book, that thought that occured to me (so morbid, yet so realistic) was that I needed to own a copy of this book. No, I needed to own several. Because the time might come when I too may have to deal with such grief, such calamity. And if or when that time comes, this is the book I want to have with me. This is the book that might just see me through.

Notes

[1] The title of this post comes from Whitman – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:
“Song of the bleeding throat!/Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know/If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)”

[2] Grief, not mourning. It is characteristic of Didion that she draws the important distinction between the two.

Advertisements