Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. (pg. 3)
On the evening of 30th December 2003, Joan Didion sat down to dinner with her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, at their home in New York. Moments later, John experienced a massive coronary event that was to lead to his death. At the same time, the couple’s only child, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel North Medical Center in the city. She had been there since Christmas Day when, what had at first appeared to be a case of flu, suddenly morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. The Year of Magical Thinking charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed these tumultuous events in her life, a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness and death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage and children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times.
Written between October and December 2004, the book’s title has its origins in “magical thinking,” a state whereby a person believes that their thoughts and wishes can bring about certain events or change an outcome in some way. Despite the fact that Didion appeared cool and rational in the hours and days immediately following John’s death, she began to believe that she could bring him back, ‘to reverse time, to run the film backwards.’
I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone. […]
I needed to be alone so that he could come back. (pgs. 32-33)
As she looks back at that time, Didion identifies a number of instances of this covert thinking which remained somewhat hidden from others and even from herself: she had not been able to read the obituaries when they appeared in the papers as they would have confirmed John’s death; she had resisted the suggestions to clear his clothes, to give them away to charity, as he might need them when he returns; she had declined a request from the hospital to donate his organs. ‘How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’
In an attempt to make sense of the range of emotions she is experiencing, Didion begins to explore the literature on grief, turning initially to poetry, novels and memoirs. Given that grief touches virtually all of us as some stage in our lives, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the sources Didion finds close to hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most illuminating insights into grief come from Didion herself. In this passage, she distinguishes between our image of what grief will be like and the reality of actually experiencing it for ourselves, a description that rings completely true to me based on my own experience of loss.
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 days. 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 anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. 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. (pgs. 188-189)
Didion is also very good on the feeling of utter disorientation and dislocation that follows the death of a loved one, that fuzzy, ‘mudgy’ state of mind that perhaps only others going through a similar experience can fully recognise. There is clear sense of fragility and vulnerability here.
People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. (pg. 75)
Intercut with these reflections on bereavement are Didion’s examination of her life with John, in particular, the years they spent in California and their time with Quintana. She describes how even the smallest of objects – often chanced upon at the most unexpected of times – can trigger the vortex effect, the opening up of a tunnel of memories that catapult her into the past. While glancing at a TV commercial, Joan happens to catch sight of a familiar stretch of coastal highway – all of a sudden she is back at Palos Verdes Peninsula, immersed in memories of the house where she and John lived with Quintana when she was a baby.
Reflections from the months leading up to John’s death form another focal point. There are a number of occasions when Joan wonders whether John had sensed that time was running out for him. In the autumn of 2003, John persuaded Joan that they should take a trip to Paris as he feared that if they did not go then, he might never see the city again. Moreover, when she thinks back to the time shortly before his death, Joan recalls John saying several things about his current and previous work which, at the time, made it difficult for her to dismiss his mood as depression (something she considers a typical phase of any writer’s life). Here is just one example of the things that continue to gnaw away at her. It was either the evening of John’s death or the previous night; John and Joan were travelling home in a taxi having just visited Quintana in the ICU unit at Beth Israel North.
Everything he had done, he said, was worthless.
I still tried to dismiss it.
This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was the condition in which we had just left Quintana.
He said that the novel was worthless.
This might not be normal. I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help. (pg 81-82)
I don’t think I’m up for this, he had said in the taxi on our way down from Beth Israel North that night or the next night. He was talking about the condition in which we had once again left Quintana.
You don’t get a choice, I had said in the taxi.
I have wondered since if he did. (pg. 217)
‘Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?’ These questions and more continue to haunt Joan as she tries to make sense of John’s death, prompting a re-examination of life with her husband as she had previously understood it.
Magical Thinking is a remarkable piece of writing, at once utterly compelling, deeply affecting and emotionally truthful. (There are other threads within Magical Thinking which I haven’t even touched on here, most notably Joan’s account of Quintana’s illness and its impact on her own state of mind.) Didion brings a great deal of honesty and candour to this work. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. Certain questions are left unanswered, doubts remain in the mind; and yet there is a sense that the very process of writing this book has helped Didion in some way.
As is often the case when I try to write about a favourite book, I am left feeling that I have fallen short, that I haven’t done it justice, that I have failed to articulate what makes it special. All I can say is that this is an exceptional book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Delphine de Vigan’s autobiographical novel, Nothings Hold Back the Night, a book that made my ‘best-of’ list last year.
The Year of Magical Thinking is published by Harper Perennial. Source: personal copy.