Category Archives: Didion Joan

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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.

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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.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Earlier this year, I read Joan Didion’s debut novel Run River. I loved the characters, the melancholy tone of this novel, its sense of place…I didn’t want it to end. All this left me keen to read more of Didion’s work, both her fiction and non-fiction. First published in 1970, Play It As It Lays was Didion’s second novel. It’s very accomplished, but it’s also very intense – a searing novel with a harrowing story at its heart.

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Play opens with a short chapter narrated by Maria. If we stick to the facts, Maria is a thirty-one-year-old model-turned-actress with a young daughter named Kate. Maria’s ex-husband, a film director by the name of Carter, put her in a couple of little movies, but she hasn’t worked for a few years. She’s in a psychiatric institution now, and the only thing that keeps her going is Kate. (Kate is mentally challenged and stuck in a potentially regressive treatment facility – we’re in the late ‘60s here.)

Maria tries to play along with the psychiatrists, to be ‘an agreeable player of the game,’ even though she knows they will misinterpret the facts. They wish to formulate reasons for her behaviour, make connections where none exist – that’s their job. The people at the institution are interested in her past, but Maria has trouble with her life ‘as it was’. She knows it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The majority of the remainder of the novel takes the form of a sequence of short, sharp chapters on the ‘as it was’. These are mostly written in the third person, which gives the story a sense of veracity and detachment as if we are observing snapshots of a selection of scenes from Maria’s past. The supposed reason for Maria’s confinement is revealed in the second chapter, a brief statement from one of Maria’s friends, Helene. But that’s not the most important thing about Maria’s story; at least I don’t think it is.

Maria’s world is diffuse and disordered; it’s populated by shallow friends, people like BZ, the film producer and his wife, Helene. Didion perfectly captures the mood of the period. It’s there in the description of the crowd Maria encounters at BZ and Helene’s parties: the ‘sulky young men’ BZ has met on his travels to Tangier and Acapulco; Helene’s friends complete with their Pucci silk shirts, ‘periodically tightened eye lines’ and ‘husbands on perpetual location’.

Carter (Maria’s ex) is portrayed as a cold, mean and ruthless man, ‘a dropper of friends and names and obligations’. Short staccato scenes from Maria and Carter’s relationship are threaded through the novel. These episodes are shot through with a strong sense of emotional distance, the feeling that Maria doesn’t know what to do or how to reach Carter. The following picture typifies the state of their contact – the couple have had one of their many arguments:

Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself. She did not know what she was doing in Baker. However it began it ended like that.

“Listen,” she would say.

“Don’t touch me,” he would say. (pg. 32)

Maria is plagued by fear, an unspeakable sense of peril in the everyday. She is haunted by the emotional fallout from a deeply traumatic event in her life, one she is struggling to come to terms with in her mind. (This episode is described in the novel in all its horrific detail.) She relies on drugs and alcohol to smother her dreams, to stop the nightmares from cutting through. There is a strong feeling of dislocation here as if Maria’s mind is disconnected from her body, both operating independently of another and with no clear direction. The following quote captures what I mean by this feeling of dislocation. Maria is calling a close friend, Les Goodwin, from a phone booth near a drive-in restaurant – as you may have guessed by now, there are other men in Maria’s life:

“Where’ve you been,” he said.

“Nowhere.” When she heard his voice she felt a rush of well-being. “I didn’t want to call you because –”

“I can’t hear you, Maria, where are you?”

“In a phone booth. I just wanted –”

“You all right?”

“No. I mean yes” A bus was shifting gears on Sunset and she raised her voice. “Listen. Call me.”

She walked back to the car and sat for a long while in the parking lot, idling the engine and watching a woman in a muumuu walk out of the Carolina Pines Motel and cross the street to a supermarket. The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in a trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing. She did not know why she had told Les Goodwin to call her. (pg. 66-67)

Following her split from Carter, Maria spends her days driving the California freeway. She has to be on the system by ten o’clock otherwise the day’s rhythm is all out of whack. She drives anywhere and everywhere; it creates an impression of momentum. Sometimes the freeway simply runs out leaving Maria in ‘a scrap metal yard in San Pedro’ or out in the middle of nowhere where the scorching roadway just stops. It’s an image that highlights the emptiness of Maria’s days at the wheel. Like Run River, I can’t imagine Play being set anywhere other than California. Didion gives the reader a vivid feel for the landscape: the images of distant mountains; the arid heat of the freeways; the diners and thrift marts dotted along the way.

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oli rockers creaked ominously. For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky. (pg. 76-77)

At the end of the day, Maria doesn’t know how to function, how to play the game of life:

I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?’ (pg. 10)

There comes a time when Maria imagines the life she might have had with Carter and Kate, something resembling the image of a normal family. It’s a heart-rending passage:

…but sometimes later, after he had left, the spectre of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been: Carter throwing a clear plastic ball filled with confetti, Kate missing the ball. Kate crying. Carter swinging Kate by her wrists. […] The images would flash at Maria like slides in a dark room. On film they might have seemed like a family. (pg. 137-138)

Play It As It Lays is a hard novel to describe, but it’s good; it’s blisteringly good. At times the prose and imagery are so intense they pierce the consciousness like a needle. Didion seems to have an innate ability to get inside the minds of women on the edge, women who are isolated and distanced from those around them. She writes about fragile, disconnected lives in a way that seems so raw yet strangely polished at the same time. At one point in Play, there’s a scene where Kate (Maria’s daughter) smashes a china doll against a large mirror – the floor is covered with pieces of ‘broken mirror and flesh-coloured ceramic’. It’s a metaphor for Maria’s existence, for the novel itself: a life fractured into a multitude of tiny jagged shards.

I’ve been reading this novel with Emma at Book Around the Corner – Emma’s review is here. It was Max’s review that prompted us to read Play.

I ought to finish now, so I’ll leave the final words on this brilliant yet brittle novel to Maria:

…I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up. (pg. 7)

Play It As It Lays is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy.

Run River by Joan Didion (review)

Joan Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, a place that provides the setting for her debut novel Run River published in 1963.

The novel opens in the blistering heat of the summer of 1959. Shortly after midnight, Lily McClellan hears a gunshot outside her home, the ranch she shares with her husband, Everett, and two teenage children. At first she remains untroubled as if there was a sense of inevitability about the shooting. When she searches for her husband’s gun in the drawer of the bedside table, she finds it is missing; somehow she knew it wouldn’t be there.

Fifteen minutes later Lily finds Everett down by the river that runs past the McClellan ranch where he has shot and killed her lover, Ryder Channing. Everett had known that Lily was due to meet Channing by the dock that evening, but he got there before her.

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Even in these early scenes there’s a sense of detachment, a feeling that captures something of the tone of Lily and Everett’s marriage. It’s almost as though they are observing rather than participating in their own lives:

Now that it was done, now that Channing lay dead between the river and where they stood, it seemed to Everett that none of them, least of all Lily, could have been involved: that all of them, he, Lily, and Channing, had simply been spectators at something that happened a long time ago to several other people. (pg. 19)

This could have been a book about the aftermath of the shooting. Instead though we move back in time, and the majority of the novel focuses on the story of Lily and Everett’s relationship from 1938 to 1959. Lily has been studying at Berkeley for a year when Everett shows an interest in her. A shy and uncertain seventeen-year-old, Lily has struggled to form any meaningful relationships at college and seems reluctant to return. She falls in with Everett as it seems like the easy thing to do. Their families come from similar stock: both own and run agricultural ranches in Sacramento; both are descended from pioneers who made their way to California in the 19th century.

Lily agrees to marry Everett, but she seems reluctant to announce their engagement. In the end, Everett drives her to Reno and they marry in secret, another scene that hints at Lily’s sense of detachment from what is happening in her life:

The ceremony was witnessed by the wife and son of the justice: the son pulled on blue jeans, the fly open, over his maroon-striped pajamas; the wife, roused unwillingly but dutiful, smiled drowsily and patted Lily’s hair. Not quite eighteen, Lily had the distinct impression throughout the ceremony that her lie about her age would render the marriage invalid, nullify the entire affair, no tears, nothing irrevocable, only a polite misunderstanding among good acquaintances. (pg. 66)

The couple return to the McClellan ranch in Sacramento to live with Everett’s father, but despite the arrival of two children, Lily feels isolated in her marriage. She has no real friends to speak of, only Everett’s somewhat flighty sister, Martha, and her attempts to host luncheons and social gatherings seem to lack any sparkle. There is something very fragile about Lily, almost as if she might snap in two at the slightest touch. I felt sad for her, especially when I read the following passage:

Well, she had at least given Everett what he wanted. Even Martha could scarcely have given him two children. But she could not escape the uneasy certainty that she had done so herself only by way of some intricate deception, that her entire life with Everett was an improvisation dependent upon cues she might one day fail to hear, characterizations she might at any time forget. (pg. 94)

At this point, I should tell you a little about Everett’s younger sister, Martha. She is very protective of her relationship with Everett, perhaps unhealthily so. It’s as if she believes that no other woman would ever be good enough for Everett, and if she can’t have him then no one else will:

“You’ve got no right to my brother,” Martha whispered, standing up unsteadily. “No right.” (pg. 119)

Martha is somewhat unstable, self-interested and prone to drinking and bouts of depression. (She reminds me a little of Cassandra Edwards from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a novel that made my end-of-year list in 2014.) When Everett enlists in the war, Martha arrives at the train station where she takes centre stage gatecrashing Lily and Everett’s final moments together. Martha appears wearing a dirty raincoat over her nightgown; it’s a scene that captures the nature of her character:

Martha shrugged and got out of the car. “All right, you’re not a bit strong. It’s your act, Lily baby, you play it any way you want. Anyway,” she added, “you’re strong enough to make people take care of you.”

Even if Lily had been able to think what to say it would have been too late: Martha was already running up the walk, her hands over her face, running and stumbling on the lace hem of the pale blue nightgown, last year’s Christmas present from Everett, picked out by Lily, extravagantly expensive, handmade at Maison Mendessolle in the St. Francis Hotel. (pg. 104)

With Everett away, Lily begins an affair with one of her neighbours, Joe Templeton. She doesn’t love him though; it’s a relationship going nowhere, born out of a sense of loneliness in Lily’s marriage and Joe’s need for a break from his alcoholic wife. The affair ends in pain for Lily and Everett, but they remain together despite a lack of understanding of what they really want from each other.

Lily meets Ryder Channing through Martha – she and Channing ride out a turbulent relationship for the best part of five years. Everett dislikes him from the get-go. He sees Channing as a player; someone who could turn any situation to his advantage. Someone who has no business being around Martha. Channing is a figurehead for the new money flooding into California in the form of property investment and development. We know from the novel’s opening chapters that Lily has an affair with Channing, but I’ll leave it there to avoid revealing anything else about the plot.

I loved the melancholy tone of this story. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a period that has all but disappeared.

This is my first encounter with Didion, and I definitely want to read more of her work. Her prose is lucid and insightful. The book feels mature and assured for a debut novel – as if it’s been written by a more experienced author.

Didion captures Lily’s character perfectly: the feeling of isolation in her relationship with Everett; the sense that he doesn’t know how to connect with her; the feeling she is acting out a part. There is something elusive, possibly unknowable, about Everett’s character…deliberately so, I think.

I didn’t want this book to end; I wanted to stay with these characters and learn more about their lives. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to convey the disintegration that characterises the final stages of Lily and Everett’s relationship – during a brief trip to Salinas they stop at a hotel:

It did not seem to matter any more who had first resented whom, or for what. It did not seem to matter what either of them did any more: it could begin out of nothing. It could begin when they were trying hardest to keep it away, could tear apart all their tacit promises, could invade even the cunningly achieved anonymity of motel rooms with wall-to-wall tweed carpeting, rooms in which they had thought they might begin again; rooms in which she could feel, in the first glow of the first drink, that Everett was someone she did not know at all, someone to whom she might seem the gifted, graced, charmed woman she had wanted to be. (pp. 240-241)

Emma at Book Around the Corner has also reviewed Run River, and it was her excellent billet that prompted me read this book (number 10/20 in my #TBR20).

Run River is published by Vintage International. Source: personal copy.