Wednesday, March 07, 2007

BOOKS: As If "If" Were an Option

If you care about such things, you'll have noticed that it's been a while since I updated my 50 books tally. I've been stalled -- not because I haven't read several books, because I have. I've been stalled because the fourth book of the year has gotten inside me in the month and a half since I read it, and I've been in denial about it, and I've been putting off talking about it because I guess I'm worried it may get inside you, too, and I'm not sure that's something you want.

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.

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.
Man, sometimes I'm so WRONG -- about other people, about myself -- it makes me wonder why I even bother having opinions.

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.

And to its punitive correlative, the message that if death catches us we have only ourselves to blame.
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.

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.


Sassmaster said...

Thanks for this. You have great insights. I loved the book, but it was painful to read. I got very sick immediately after reading it, and I don't really think that was a coincidence.

Karen said...

This book knocked my socks off, while it indeed "gutted me" (as you said -- well put!). As I wrote in my own review, I concluded that Didion is first and foremost a journalist, and that's how she approached this project: How to make sense of it all. Instead of being crushingly depressed at the end, however, I found in it some strength that I, too, could live through such a personal tragedy. It read almost like a guidebook for grief. That being said, however, I passed it to my MIL, who found that it hit WAY too close to home (she and her husband are in their 70s); she didn't need to be reminded of what devastation any day of the week could bring. (Oh, and for the record, I don't think you have to worry about your spoiler -- it doesn't happen in the book, and it was certainly all over the news.)

landismom said...

Yeah, I've been putting off reading this myself, because like you, I'm prone to those late night movies. I was gutted just by the excerpt I read in the New Yorker! I think I might have to wait until my kids are a little older...when I'll be even more worried about them.

Thanks for this great review, though.

JAM said...

Like landis, I've been putting off reading this one.

I'm afraid of it, frankly. My imagination supplies all sorts of morbid scenarios on a fairly regular basis; more frequently since my husband has started traveling for his job and is on the road for long stretches. Every now and then I find myself briefly immobilized by a kind of shadowy, hypothetical grief that hovers just this side of hysteria because somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I "know" I'm going to have to face tragedy. I don't think it's the idea of the tragedy itself that knocks me senseless, its the idea of having to live with it.

That's all horribly depressing and makes me sound crazy, I know. Particularly since I generally have a rather optimistic approach. But that's what terrifies me about this book -- having to face someone else's having to face living with that tragedy.

On the other hand, I really want to read it, because I believe Joan Didion is, as you say, an incredibly gifted writer.

Anonymous said...

It's been over a year since I read The Year of Magical Thinking. I had a similar reaction: I wanted to feel more, but I just couldn't. Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers -- has been for a very long time -- but I was slightly disappointed. Her prose is almost too tightly controlled, a little too clean, and at the time I had read several "sick lit" (I know, awful term) memoirs that really dove headfirst into the muck. (Which, I know now, is more parlor trick than art.)

notanillusion said...

I think you're right. I think Didion wrote the book in such a way that we can't really process it immediately because it would destroy us. But between this and your movie review, read a Christopher Moore book next! You need the relief!

Anonymous said...

I devoured this book, starting it and finishing it Monday night. And I didn't cry once, but I spend the whole time with that pressure in the front of my head, that pre-cry feeling.

And I spent yesterday thinking of the movable ocean of the world, of the thousand tragedies that can befall us and those close to us, and I think it's going to take a long time to get rid of those thoughts.

It was amazing, and I won't be re-reading it.

I had no idea of the information in your spoiler. My.

kristen said...

Great analysis...I absolutely adored this book and it moved me in ways that I can't really articulate. I have a hard time recommending it to people as well because it is so private and personal that I almost feel it is a violation to give it away.

tuckova said...

She has a piece in the New York Times about adapting it for a play. I think you'll like it.

"We begin to suspect that the delivery of this report is all that holds the speaker together. We begin to sense a tension between what we are being told and what we are not being told — What’s going on here? ... Think of the Greeks, how ragged they are, how apparently careless of logical transition. Is there a deeper logic?"

It's here

Anonymous said...

I had the privilege recently of hearing Ms. Didion give a reading from the book, nearly an hour of almost expressionless monotone delivery about the most painful thing I can imagine. She's a tiny, frail-looking person but she must have a titanium core. During the question time one audience member asked her how her daughter was doing, and you could hear the crowd gasp. I read the book after hearing her read and was quite interested to find out how she had edited her reading.

Anonymous said...

I read Didion's book about a year ago, after reading Ann Patchett's "Truth and Beauty: A Friendship," and Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face." Now that's a party! Except not. Didion's book left me...aching. I...appreciated her clean, controlled, journalistic, removed style. Another person above mentioned that they found strength in this, and I can echo that sentiment. This book will remain in my library forever. I won't go back and reread it anytime soon, but it's somewhat comforting to know that it's there. Didion is truly a gifted writer, and she has blown me away. But as of right now, I still need some distance from this book.

Anonymous said...

A Didion fan of old, I took this book on a solo trip to Paris to do a little grief recovery of my own. And I cried repeatedly as I read it--in every cafe in Paris over several days. Luckily, the French did not find this as odd as I imagine Americans would. Nonetheless, I think this one of the bravest pieces of writing ever. Good review!

BabelBabe said...

I have been putting off reading this - I am all too aware of the fragility of life due to various happenings in my younger life and a touch of OCD, which leads to my routinely having to stop my brain from playing those same films, over and over, that you and other talk about here. I think I may putit off a bit longer - but thank you for the beautifully written and thoughtful review.

and forgive that horribly constructed sentence up there, but it's late and i'm going to let it stay.

Les said...

Great review. I read the book in Dec. 2005 and wrote the following in my journal (didn't have my blog at that time) and thought you might like to read my thoughts, as I am a parent who has lost a child:

Rating: C+ (3.5/5 Good)

I’ve read an amazing amount of books on grief this past year and while Didion’s work won the National Book Award in non-fiction, it wasn’t a big winner in my book. I highlighted several passages, but overall was a bit disappointed. Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider and Barbara Wilson’s First Year Worst Year were more impressive.

There have been a few negative reviews or comments about the book and its lack of style and structure, but that’s not what I disliked. As a matter of fact, the manner in which Didion relates her story is very much how I’ve been living these past seven months. Grief circles around and around, popping up unexpectedly. It’s not linear in the sense that today is better than yesterday, which was better than the day before. It’s more like a roller-coaster and one does tend to repeat key events and phrases over and over to anyone who will listen. It’s the words that makes the death a reality. Didion states, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought.” Rod and I have talked about this a lot. I think this is the purpose of our blogs. Not necessarily writing for the eyes of others, but to sort through the emotional mess and come to terms with it, one way or another.

I certainly wouldn’t dismiss Didion’s work, but as I said, I’ve found other books to be a bit more helpful.

Some favorite passages:

“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, illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, and the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.”

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be ‘healing.’ A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to ‘get through it,’ rise to the occasion, exhibit the ‘strength’ that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death… We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

“People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry about it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it.’ We understand the aversion most of us have to ‘dwelling on it.’ Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. ‘A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.’ “

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us… 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.”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. The "movies" you talk about have been with me so long, I am almost used to them. I appreciate hearing that others have them too. I also realize I can never read this book. My imagination is bad enough!

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing book. Working in health care, watching people go thru prolonged grief on a regular basis, her thoughts were insightful and oddly comforting. And that is the thing about this book- it's like she's saying, "You feel completely insane. That's okay. So did I. You are okay." and giving people permission to feel the way they do is maybe the best gift anyone can give someone who is grieving.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully Written.

meera said...

you are so totally busted for that star trek quote.

Anonymous said...

I've put off reading this book because my husband dropped dead of a heart attack 5 days before our 10th wedding anniversary. He was only 51. Thanks for the review though.