Jump to content, Jump to navigation.

Amber Paulen

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking

5 July 2009


By mandate of most internet mentions of The Year of Magical Thinking any post or article must begin with the first two lines of this book. True to form:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.

The over-repetition has its point, repeated over and over in the book itself: on these two lines (and their repetition) this novel rests.

I have only briefly read some of Joan Didion’s other works, bits and pieces of The White Album. Throughout each piece I found myself only too aware of the precision of her polished prose. In a way it was too sharp for me, as if I only caught the glint reflected off its point. I enjoy casual; I enjoy mistakes. Now, after the death of her husband, in this book, Joan Didion admits that several times in her life she had been wrong. There is tenderness in this book, no sharp points at all…

But for death, the main protagonist. The brisk hand of death. My grandma, a devout Christian, whose husband died six years ago, has standing in the corner of her elegant bedroom, a statue of the Grim Reaper. “And how are you today Mr. Death?” Complete in cloak and scythe he stands over a foot tall. I don’t know who sells such things, I don’t know what possessed my grandma to buy it, or maybe I do. Maybe death is easier to deal with when he’s painted ceramic. Maybe The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s version of a Grim Reaper.

The Year of Magical Thinking like all good works of art, says Rainer Maria Rilke, has sprung from necessity. Joan Didion’s necessity is double-edged: to keep her husband alive and to accept that he is dead. This necessity made itself so apparent, already in the beginning that I began to think it may overwhelm me, that I may choke on it, but I didn’t. Because of Joan Didion’s polished prose, the distance she assumes as the writer—who is a person continually questioning one’s own thoughts and actions (as well as others)—assures the wife will not weep too much. “The cool customer.” “The question of self pity.”

John Gregory Dunne stopped talking and then collapsed on the night of December 30, 2003. The married couple of 40 years had just sat down to dinner after visiting their only daughter in the hospital. In the book’s beginning (instead of a sad ending here you have a sad beginning) as Joan Didion tells of death as accurately as she can, you can feel her grasping for its reality. She narrowed down so much to dates and times and scientific names, for dates and times and scientific names are much safer and easier to understand. The repetition, of memories and of those first sentences pervade the whole book, one can imagine the repetition in her mind. The constant reminder: he is gone.

I found The Year of Magical Thinking to be more beautiful than tragic. The vulnerabilities of the human soul, the thinnest threads which hold us, are not tramped across the page but are evoked with the fragility of their sting. I imagined this frail old woman sitting before her word processor, conjuring memories of memories, writing to avoid a certain end.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of our mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

In the same internet articles about this book, it is often mourned the ending of Joan Didion and John Dunne’s relationship, partnership is the word often used. They lived together, worked together, they were both writers, they wrote screenplays together and their novels in separate rooms. Sounds wonderful, this relationship evoked. Malibu, Hawaii, New York, Hollywood. The shared life of two successful writers; like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I thought. Would Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir of Sartre’s death go something like this?

“The question of self pity.” Maybe that’s what the writing of this book was meant to avoid, for the literal question only came up once. Who she was: John and Joan, now she’s only Joan. One’s “better half.” When you are with someone for so long, the other’s actions are anticipated to a point that that anticipation has become who you also are. Unending emptiness. The anticipations stays. Who are we before cloaked and faceless death?

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 meaningless itself.

I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but I sent this book to my grandma who still suffers her husband’s death. I’ve read that this is not a book for those in grief, but that seems silly to me. This was a book written in grief, in mourning; there are similar experiences and new ways of seeing that can be shared.

When I had finished, Simon asked if The Year of Magical Thinking was depressing. I answered vaguely that the beginning was. The reader is drawn in so quick, death before you know what hits you. But the book as a whole, no, I don’t believe it is depressing, that would be saying too little. The Year of Magical Thinking is a brave book, a resounding book. It is a book as much about the painful coming into a new life as much as it is about death. The Grim Reaper stares out from his corner, where he has always been.



Submit a Comment


·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·