When Joan Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne dropped dead on December 30, 2003, he was in the middle of a speaking a sentence in their living room. She was mixing a salad for their dinner.
As I write these words, Stuart and I are about to sit down to eat the dinner the two of us have prepared together. He mixed the salad as I made the dressing. He showed me how to extract a single frozen bratwurst from a package of six and then quartered the potatoes. I snipped the yellow wax beans and threw in the squash.
John Dunne edited everything Joan Didion ever published and vice versa. Ditto for Stuart and me.
Dunne and Didion were about to celebrate 40 years of marriage when he died. For Stuart and me, the celebration took place a week ago. Joan Didion’s memoir was on the bedstand the night of our own 40th anniversary.
I think you can see why I identified with Didion in this book–and why that identification is a little terrifying. While I am no more Joan Didion than Dan Quayle was John F. Kennedy, I do share a few of her traits. Her type of marriage holds similarities to mine, and I recognize also her instinct to put her life on the page to look at it from different angles and understood in new ways. What she has lost, I may someday lose also, and therein lies the terror.
The greatest value of this book is that it helps the reader confront the terrible, oft-repressed, subject of death. The book will help the dying (all of us someday!) and the grieving alike. Didion abhors both self-help writing and writing-as-therapy. She is much more intent on telling the truth than at simplifying it in order to be helpful to others.
Ironically, because of her focus on describing the exact condition of her mind and body, weaving memory with reporting, the personal and the learned, she helps her readers more than many other writers whose first goal is bringing comfort to the bereaved. All great literature is a form of self-help. We turn to it–think of the Psalms or Shakespeare–when we reach our limits or want to express our joy. This book, too, achieves that kind of stature. As John Leonard said in The New York Review of Books, “I can’t imagine dying without [it].”
The Year of Magical Thinking is about sudden death and its impact. Not only does Didion lose her husband, but her only child, her daughter, Quintana Roo, goes through two critical health crises in hospitals on both coasts, once before her father’s death and once afterward. By the time this book was published in 2005, Quintana had died also, although Didion chose not to rewrite the book to include this fact.
How much suffering can one person take? And what effect does suffering all the way to the bone have on the mind and body? Didion answered these questions as she pounded out the book in 88 days in the latter months of 2004. The book ultimately won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Didion begins with these words:
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.
Even though the lines look like poetry, their power lies from extreme understatement, from the prosaic within the tragic. Didion rejects anything dramatic, easy or sentimental, and tests her humanist-Episcopalian worldview. Will she be able to bear the weight of all this loss even though she doesn’t believe God is taking a personal interest in it? Her last sentence declares that “no eye is on the sparrow”; she extracts her strength from memory, endurance, science, and art. But she also comes back many times to the rich language of The Book of Common Prayer and to the service for John at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Like the new journalist pioneer she is, Didion researches death to try to understand it better and then tells the reader facts she gleans. The book is a compendium of other works, both literary and scientific, on the subject of death and grief. Yet it is not displayed in linear thought patterns. Instead it is digested and shared in fragments, so that we can understand the subject of the book–magical thinking–the kind of thinking that invades the mind of this fierce intellectual as she endures a devastating period of her life. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends, she repeats many times. She cannot give away John’s shoes–and then she recognizes why–he will need them when he comes back.
Another aspect of magical thinking is reviewing the entire marriage for signs of how it will end. My favorite passage occurs two-thirds of the way through the book as Didion recalls her birthday, which occurred 25 days before John’s death:
“Before dinner John sat by the fire in the living room and read to me out loud. The book from which he read was a novel of my own, A Book of Common Prayer, which he happened to have in the living room because he was rereading it to see how something worked technically. The sequence he read out loud was one in which Charlotte Douglas’ husband Leonard pays a visit to the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, and lets her know that what is happening in the country her family runs will not end well. The sequence is complicated (this was in fact the sequence John had meant to reread to see how it worked technically), broken by other action and requiring the reader to pick up the undertext in what Leonard Douglas and Grace Strasser-Mendana say to each other. ‘Goddamn,’ John said to me when he closed the book. ‘Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.'”
As a reader, I will need to reread this complex memoir in order to understand how it works technically. But even before reading the passage above, I knew two things–that the brokenness of it creates an undertext worth carefully unravelling. And that this woman and this man loved each other.
It is the second message I take to bed with me tonight. I have looked at Stuart, listened to him, and touched him with new wonder because of this book.
Magical thinking happens not only to the bereaved widow. Brushes with death, (such as reading about the death of another woman’s husband), produce profound appreciation for life, for what we have and for whom we have, for however long we have them. What could be more magical?