Review of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 227 pages. [first published in Books in Canada, Winter 2006.]
Joan Didion's ground for departure for her writing has always been her body and her nervous system, though readers could be forgiven for believing that she starts with her note-taking eyes or her mind or her wit or her ears. She has put all to mesmerizing use for decades as a reporter on the American scene, telling the stories inside the stories, its conscience as well as its false fronts. That's not how it sounds on paper, of course, not right away. In essays on how she keeps a notebook or living in Malibu or the year 1968 or New York after the rape in Central Park she is, first of all, a sharp recorder of the small, the local, the throwaway, the debris before her. She is a great assembler of impressions, of world data. Her mode is to catch at this and that on the same flypaper -- horrible crime, for example, and the self-assurance of a young person -- and although nothing ration orders the two she lets them ping against each other suggestively so that her subject is ultimately a third thing, the stuff in the air that everyone is feeling but that hasn't been named yet.
Her subject seems to be the hyper-Modernist one of fracture, her worry that the earth tremors in her native California are a trope for the national consciousness and experience, that coherence may be losing out to iniquity or moral laxness but just as easily to the facts buried in the earth. She is interested in that, in the difference between what may be true and what is probably true, and in just about any of her essays she is also Catholic in her way of estimating the gap between them. She lays out story and scene, one after the other, with a plain style that suggests both a personal point of view and a national conscience. She gathers witty scenes onto the same page with nervous and absurd ones. She has a great ear for important professional and sub-group languages and she can work up a canvas in which all that language is masking something, some subtextual jitteriness. She can make the pseudo confidence of authorities appear to be presenting symptoms for the apocalypse. "The center was not holding," she begins her essay, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," continuing
It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.
Since the mid-1960s that has been her basic grammar, the parataxis borrowed from Hemingway and the Old Testament. It is her signature style, and for decades now it has suited the epiphanies in her personal essays, the zeitgeist musings of her political fictions, and the jeremiad crescendos of her major essays. The style is her way of channeling the American voice into her own, of letting us see how she regards her psyche as a Rorshach of the national mood, her antennae about California in general (which is to say madness, the future, utopia, dystopia, the place where all the shadows sleep) just a little more finely tuned than anyone else's.
The flatness and the unflinching directness are also keys. She seems to have more honesty about herself, about her mental state, her psychiatric reports, her worries, her convictions, her randomly assembled life, its repeated patterns, than any other living writer (maybe any other living person). At just about any point in her writing life she seems to have known which epicenter to gravitate towards. Even when she lived by the ocean, in Malibu, she drew a picture of it as central to something. She seems to have seen the country, the United States, at the tissue-and-bone level. She seems to have read its trails, its secrets better than anyone else. She seems to speak from far inside some lonely up-late-at-night visionary place. When you read her best essays and books you can find yourself holding your breath, keeping present for the insight that you can feel her sentences are mounting up to, the truth she alludes to but won't let her words quite touch, the dim-tide feeling she's suggesting about the present and future, the ongoing harbingers she seems to find in her subjects. "I could taste the peach," she writes in "Goodbye To All That," her essay about her eight-year sojourn in New York which ended in a move back to her native California. She remembers having bought the peach on Lexington Avenue in her first summer in the city, and as she describes it her scene blows into a Sinatra song about the passage of time:
I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later -- because I did not belong there, did not come from there -- but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.
Taking simple clauses joined by "and" she turns a Beat list into a dark reach into the past, into memory, a stirring of dull roots with subway air. The democracy of her grammer puts T.S. Eliot's Prufrock into play with an image of Marilyn Monroe, the whole of it inside a long Whitman line about the city of juxtapositions. The second paragraph of "On Keeping a Notebook" might be from La Chanson de Roland, so present is its sense of an urgent destiny: "Here is what it is," she writes, about a line in her notebook that she once wrote down and now can't understand:
Here is what it is: the girl has been on the Eastern Shore, and now she is going back to the city, leaving the man beside her, and all she can see ahead are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 A.M. long-distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960? 1961?).
Didion's virtuoso talents are on display here: her air of intimacy and confession, the conjunctions that pool into a self-hypnotized gaze, the lush sense impressions ("viscous summer sidewalks"), the novelistic details, the feeling she gives her readers of deep access to her mind, its restless ordering. Her latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a memoire, a book-length study of what happened to her in the year after her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, died. Having been married for 40 years, and having spent most days writing together, consulting with each other about heir writing, and most evenings dining together or with friends, her book is a record of the hour of his death and the days after that when she could not quite understand what had happened, and the months after that of grieving and being regularly stunned by the fact of his passing. But while most books on grieving look at it in retrospect hers feels, as her writing always does, alive to each moment. She makes her own personal feelings about the proximity of death feel breathless, essential: "I remember thinking that I needed to discuss this with John," she writes early on, meaning his death in general and the hour when she came home from the emergency room after he had been pronounced dead. Faced with an empty apartment she wonders what her husband would make of the strangeness. It is a snapshot of her state of mind at the time, and though she recognizes the absurdity of the wish she has written, as she has always done, to document the moment, the reeling and unreal state of mind she found herself in, the dark cloud of grief, its habit of producing magical thinking.
The book's first hundred pages, in fact, has a certain time-bound drama about it. Not believing that what has happened to her (or to him) is real and certain that the time of death is a reversible event she reconstructs on paper, in several different ways, what John was doing just before he died (drinking Scotch, sitting down to dinner), records how she went back to study her building's door log to determine when John's gurney left the building and so see, in the interstices of hospital logs, the moment of his death. Back from the emergency room she wonders if she can fly to California, arrive there before the west coast hour of John's death, and somehow change what has happened. "Maybe," she writes, "he wasn't dead in California." She held on to John's shoes so that when he came back he would have something to wear. Most amazingly, she remembers avidly wanting an autopsy:
I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher's case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed. I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress. I still wanted one. I had to know how and why and when it had happened.
All, we learn, because she has the thought that knowing exactly how he died might give her the power, or the finesse, or the craft to turn time back, to edit the event, re-write it to give it a satisfying conclusion. And even once she begins to accept his death she wants to report to us what grief is like. It is not sadness or loneliness, she says -- the longing of children whose parents have died. Real grief "comes in waves," "with paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."
And so the writer who can break down national moments and national fidgets for her readers, who can deconstruct a political season and lay out the lyric of her youth, turns out to be a brilliant recorder, explainer and close-in narrator of grave sorrow and dread in her own life. In this memoire she has no reaching after something else or any interest at disguising her pain or turning it into life wisdom. For over 200 pages she stays close to her family story, her daily attempts to be -- not recover, not learn, not show a brave face, only to be and exist inside the facts, and to set down how her usually orderly habit of research and thought, writing and re-writing, fail her in the face of the death. She ventures out only literally, to care for her daughter, Quintana, in the spring after John's death. Quintana, who was in the hospital when John died, has ended up there again, with complications from a staph infection. This time it is at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a part of the country where she and John lived for 25 years. It is here that the book turns. In California she works to chart a clear path from her hotel, the Beverly Wilshire, and the hospital, aiming to block the minefield of memories that lie between and around the two. There is the theater where she and John saw The Graduate in 1968. There is a television commercial that shows a glimpse of a stretch of the Pacific Highway where she lived for a few years in the mid-1960s. Each time she feels terror and blindness. Each time she, or her book, shows a dawning sense that she is not going to write a better ending.
Her book begins with something like that, scraps of lines she wrote a few weeks after John's death in January 2004. And several times she explains that she did not write again for ten months after John's death. Yet paper, and the words on it, is her source of understanding and consolation, so twenty pages before the end of Year she notes how she returned to the paper trail, circling the mystery of his time of death, comparing the hospital record of the time against her building's door log. A chapter before that she recalls how she would tell John her dreams, how one of her dreams ended up in her novel, Play It As It Lays. She is underscoring how she has churned the matter of her life, her physical and mental condition, her web of impressions about the world and her self in the world, into her books. The Year of Magical Thinking is no different in the flat, driving music of its sentences, in its way of showing thinking so well on paper that a reader feels a little dizzy standing up after reading it, from following the way Didion makes and unmakes and remakes the patterns of the national life. She has made, in this careful record of her turmoil, another of her probes into the unspoken zones of American life, which depends on cheer, on shadowless images, on papering over thoughts of death, on denial, on forgetting the facts of time. So much time elapses reading her incantatory prose about the hour of her husband's death that there are moments reading the book when her thoughts appear to be your own, her fears and dreams yours. All that exposure, and in grief: it is amazing.