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Dark Irony

Photo by Anne Fishbein

It is almost impossible to write about this book — especially now. Joan Didion’s memoir, spare and wholly unsentimental, recounts the events surrounding and following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack, on December 30, 2003. At the time, their daughter and only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a coma in Beth Israel North Hospital in Manhattan: Having initially appeared to have the flu, she had descended in the space of a week into a life-threatening state of pneumonia and septic shock, from which it would take her months to recover.

But the loss of Didion’s constant companion of 40 years — not only her life’s love but her professional collaborator as well — was only the beginning. Quintana Roo, who left New York for California after her apparent recovery, collapsed at the airport upon arrival in Los Angeles and entered another, still more frightening, cycle of physical collapse, incurred by a massive hematoma in her brain. Upon learning that her daughter’s pupils had been fixed and dilated by the time she reached the hospital, Didion researched the significance of this on the Internet, and reports the results of a German study: “The overall mortality rate was 75 percent. Of the 25 percent who were still alive twenty-four months later, 15 percent had what the Glasgow Outcome Scale defined as an ‘unfavorable outcome’ and 10 percent a ‘favorable outcome’ ” — in which, she explains, “unfavorable” refers to a vegetative state.

It was a long road, but at the time of writing this book, Didion must have believed that her daughter — miraculously — would be one of the few to make a full recovery. But life’s dark ironies are boundless, and, as if at the hands of vindictive gods, Joan Didion lost her daughter in August of this year, only weeks before the book’s publication.

Even before this tragedy, The Year of Magical Thinking was a book about which critical writing seems unnecessary: Not a book “about” its subject (grief), it is its expression. It doesn’t demand commentary, but must instead be experienced. The “magical thinking” to which the title refers is Didion’s reflexive and all but unconscious belief, in the months after her husband’s death, that she must engage in certain behaviors (for example, she must not give away his shoes) so as to be prepared for his return. She charts, too, the way geographies are marred — or enriched, depending on the force of grief — by personal history: While her daughter suffers in the UCLA hospital, Los Angeles and its suburbs become, for Didion, a map of avoidance. She writes about what she terms “the vortex effect,” in which seemingly innocent thoughts lead inexorably back to the site of grief. Having lived for 24 years in L.A., she struggles mightily with its vortex effect: “Never once in five weeks did I drive into the part of Brentwood in which we had lived from 1978 until 1988. When I saw a dermatologist in Santa Monica and street work forced me to pass within three blocks of our house in Brentwood, I did not look left or right. Never once in five weeks did I drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. When Jean Moore offered me the use of her house on the Pacific Coast Highway, three-eighths of a mile past the house in which we had lived from 1971 until 1978, I invented reasons why it was essential for me to stay instead at the Beverly Wilshire.”

And yet, inevitably, the book is itself the transliteration of that vortex effect, the setting down on paper of Didion’s unwilling reminiscence, as her brutally tender finger of memory probes so many thoughtlessly happy and insignificant moments: “Quintana at three. The night she had put a seed pod from the garden up her nose and I had driven her to Children’s Hospital. The pediatrician who specialized in seed pods had arrived in his dinner jacket”; “the morning we drove down to St. Tropez from Tony Richardson’s house in the hills and had coffee on the street and bought fish for dinner.” And this, of course, is not grief, but the pain that comes in its wake. As she writes of her experience after Dunne’s death: “Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.’... Tightness in the throat. Choking, need for sighing.”

Didion is, from the book’s first lines, concerned with “The question of self-pity.” How to avoid it? How even to recognize it? How to overcome it? And indeed, from a distance, one might see, within the confines of the narrative, the unabashed flickerings of that taboo emotion. Her loss was the greater because she and her husband were so very close, but how marvelous a gift to share 40 years with him. And to have such an interesting life, blessed by fierce intellect and curiosity. Within the confines of the narrative (how not to wish it were a fiction, its ending the end?), how fortunate to endure her daughter’s terrible illnesses and see her fully recover. Only this is not a fiction, and ultimately, beyond the book, Quintana did not recover.

Awake to all sides of her experience, even her willful delusions, Didion writes, “I kept saying to myself that I had been lucky all my life. The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me no right to think of myself as unlucky now. This was what passed for staying on top of the self-pity question. I even believed it.” But her eventual realization is that “Not only did I not believe that ‘bad luck’ had killed John and struck Quintana but in fact I believed precisely the opposite: I believed that I should have been able to prevent whatever happened.” And indeed, further, she acknowledges that she holds John and Quintana responsible, a misapprehension — a magical mis-thinking — of which she has to let go.

The Year of Magical Thinking, brief and intense as it is, gives the extraordinary impression of a literary artifact experienced not over time but in a single, expanding circle of time. It is a rare and remarkable, if painful, experience. In spite of its narrative progression — the course of a year, in which Quintana is better, then more ill, then better again — Didion’s emotional turmoil seems, like grief’s waves, to return and repeat with undiminished force. She writes at the book’s conclusion, “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none . . . 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.”

There is no answer to this truth. The personal injustice of death, of each individual’s loss, is unbearable, and yet must be borne. We have so little preparation for it. (At one point Didion calls, with a certain wisdom, upon Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette for advice about appropriate behavior after a death.) Didion’s observations are not new; but particular, and true, they are searing. They will explain much to those who have not suffered, and will articulate the grief of those who have. As Edgar wisely says, in King Lear, “the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ ” In a world in which death is certain, there is no loss greater than the ability to speak our grief, than the misery of wordlessness. In this sense, this book itself is a testament to Didion’s continued commitment to life: No resolution, it is at least a record, and a beacon.

One must hope that in the wake of further tragedy, she will keep observing, keep telling. Didion quotes from T.S. Eliot — “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” — referring to the “repeated rituals of domestic life. . . . All those soufflés, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albóndigas and gumbos.” But words, too, are these fragments, shored against each of our intolerable ruins. They are what we have that lasts, and that keeps living.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING | By JOAN DIDION | Knopf | 220 pages | $24 hardcover