The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion (#4)
The thing about this book is that, immediately after I read it, I didn't think it had gotten to me at all. Here are some of the things I wrote a day or so after I finished it:
The funny thing about this book -- Didion's memoir of the twelve months following her husband's sudden death -- is that I expected it to eviscerate me in a totally upfront, knife-in-the-guts kind of way, and it didn't. It didn't at all. I didn't find myself close to tears even once, and considering how gutted stories about spousal death usually leave me (hello, A Death in the Family?), this came as a shock.Man, sometimes I'm so WRONG -- about other people, about myself -- it makes me wonder why I even bother having opinions.
It's not because Didion isn't a compelling writer. She is, which is why I went into work bleary-eyed a couple of days in a row, and -- I'll be frank here -- perhaps didn't perform at my peak. But after thinking more about this book and my reaction to it, I realize that I don't think Didion is even trying to elicit an overt emotional reaction from anyone who reads this book. Instead, what you get is, as much as this is possible, an inside look at how someone else grieves, but delivered in a way that is so analytical as to seem almost dispassionate.
Why on earth did I think Didion was dispassionate? This is a woman who's obviously crazy from grief. She's also a woman who is at the height of her intellectual and communicative powers. Despite her grief and borderline insanity, these powers are still there, and she's forced to wield them in an endless, compulsive forensic audit of her relationship with her husband and the events leading up to his final heart attack. As a writer, she seems helpless not to see foreshadowing everywhere. As an extraordinarily gifted and perceptive and self-aware person, she's able to break down the mechanics of grief in a way that's staggeringly real. And as an extremely good writer, she's able to write about said mechanics for 200-odd pages without ever resorting to a single cliché. And man, it makes you realize how blandly reassuring -- or at least comfortably distancing -- all those death clichés are when you're reading a book with a serious dearth of them.
This is the stuff of Greek tragedies, and it reminds you that Greek tragedies still resonate today for a reason: because they speak to horrible truths. Such as the simple, awful loss of a husband and, more awful still, believe it or not [spoiler alert] the loss of a child. I didn't learn this till after I'd finished the book, but Didion's only child died just a few months into the second year after her husband died. So in just a year and a bit, a woman goes from having a solid, close, loving family to being utterly alone. Like I said, Greek tragedy. [/spoiler]
It's hard not to resent Didion. I already had death issues of my own. My husband and child have died hundreds, possibly thousands, of times in my mind. But before I read this book, at least I had occasional reprieves from these terrible movies my brain likes to show me. If you're prone to the same movies, you know what I'm talking about. They come several nights in succession, always late at night, of course. You have a short-lived bout of insomnia, and then busy reality mercifully drives it all away for a few days or weeks or even months before the next bout strolls by to kick your ass. Since reading A Year of Magical Thinking, not only have I had my ass kicked every single day, but these episodes no longer have the decency to at least confine themselves to late nights. Now I can be innocently cutting up some watermelon for a snack for Sam, or rolling my eyes at some cockamamie story Rusty is telling me, and suddenly I'm walloped by the realization that this could all be taken from me, suddenly, unbelievably, at the drop of a hat. (It's one of those dreaded clichés, of course. But then I never claimed to be a profoundly gifted writer.)
Strangely, releasing my nighttime demons into the wilds of the day has had one positive effect: I seem to be sleeping better.
Here's a passage from the book that stuck with me:
Later, after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albóndigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.Elsewhere, Didion said this:
As I recall this I realize how open we are to the persistent message that we can avert death.What I find interesting -- and I don't know if it's intentional or a slip or what -- is how Didion says "if" in the last sentence. As if "if" were still an option.
And to its punitive correlative, the message that if death catches us we have only ourselves to blame.
I don't know what else to say. This is a great and terrible book. I'm loath to recommend it to anyone. But at the same time, we humans, we form close attachments. Our neural pathways become accustomed to the sensory input patterns of others. We suffer terribly when these attachments are terminated. If a handbook can be said to exist to help a thinking person deal with loss, perhaps this is it.