The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In western culture, there is no commonly accepted ritual of mourning. After the funeral and the flowers and the cards, the bereaved person is  expected to get on with life, and grieving is usually done in private. No sackcloth and ashes, no sitting on the ground weeping, casting dust upon the head, as was the custom in Old Testament times (see, for instance, Isaiah 3,26). In The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement by Viriginia Lloyd (which I reviewed in a guest blog for Whispering Gums recently)  the widow finds relief, after her husband’s death, by having long, late night baths, listening to jazz, submerged to her chin in the water, trying to return to a state of ‘morbid stillness’, and observing the black dots clustered near the blistering paint on the ceiling, which, like the rest of the old house that had been her marriage home for the past year, was stricken with rising damp. This metaphor is woven throughout the book, and sets the theme for the author’s work of self-reflection and resurrection, as the house she lives in is cured of rising damp and restored to health. The book ends with her departure for New York, in search of the “rich and full life” that was her husband’s dying wish for her.

In Didion’s memoir of the year following the sudden death of her beloved partner of 40 years, there is no prospect of resurrection for the mourner. The lament begins with the words: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” This is a refrain throughout the book. The elegiac theme is woven through diary-like jottings on the widow’s mental state and the obsessive ruminations, literary quotes and fragments of medical science she uses to anchor herself. The magical thinking that disrupts and resists this attempt at intellectual control is that her husband John will return, and resume their life together, and she catches herself again and again thinking and acting as if he will come back.  It is an intense, sustained lament, expressed in a dry, tautly controlled prose that cracks every now and then to reveal raw, naked pain and the humbling recognition of her own fragility. Reflecting on a story she has just read about a man blinded by grief, she thinks of people she knows who have lost a loved one in the last year or so, and how, when she has seen them unexpectedly, “what struck me in each instance was how exposed they seemed, how raw. How fragile, I understand now. How unstable.”

After the shock has worn off, and some semblance of normal life returns, what is left in the reality of living grief, she says, is “the unending absence, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” For Didion, there is no resolution, no resurrection. The experience of having to let go of the loved one is felt as a betrayal. For this reason, perhaps, she confesses that she does “not want to finish this account.”

The other story of loss in the book is the  illness of Quintana, Joan and John’s daughter. She lay in a coma induced by pneumonia, followed by septic shock, and Joan and John had visited her just hours before John was struck by cardiac arrest, as he sat in the lounge room sipping a scotch while Joan prepared dinner. The middle part of the book recounts Joan’s pilgrimage around her daughter’s critical illness and gradual, faltering recovery. The tragic irony is that Quintana died a few weeks before the memoir was published. Didion refused to revise the book to include this event, and subsequently wrote Blue Nights, a memoir about her relationship with her daughter, published in 2011.

The Australian critic Andrew Riemer says of Blue Nights  that reading it makes him feel like an intruder, a voyeur, and that grief should remain silent. This is a repressive judgement. My answer to this is that no-one is forced to read this book, and that many  of us, who read, love, study and write memoir find that memoirs of grief can be therapeutic, both for writer and reader. For Didion, writing her memoir kept her surviving, and gave some meaning to the empty days; whether it gave more consolation than this, she does not disclose. The fact that it is superbly written and has become a best seller and had a successful stage dramatisation (with the script written by Didion) is further evidence of its relevance and value to society and culture. Virginia Lloyd’s memoir is an example of memoir as an act of healing. Didion’s Magical Thinking resists this classification, but is memorable for its ruthless honesty and elegiac reflections on life, loss, death, and those who survive. It may not be to everyone’s taste. I find it dry and distancing most of the time, but I respect the elegance and controlled pain, and the great cost that gave it life. I’ve yet to read Blue Nights, but first I am going to read Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story.

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6 Comments

Filed under memoirs of mourning

6 responses to “The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  1. Lovely review of a great book Christina. It’s a while since I read it but I found it hugely moving. It tied in well with Marion Halligan’s fictional story of a widow, Fog garden, which I read around the same time.

    I should read Blue nights … Have you read Isabel Allende’s Paula about the long dying of her daughter. It’s also a beautifully reflective and honest book.

  2. Thank you, Sue. Some years ago I did read Paula, and was disappointed in it (compared to Allende’s earlier books, which I loved) but haven’t returned to it since. I might see it differently now, in the context of memoir.

  3. Director, The Writing Business

    Nice work. I like the sound of the uplifting ending of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. Mind you, I’ve always rather hankered after a “rich and full” life in New York.

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