The Year of Magical Thinking

by Joan Didion
227 pages,
ISBN: 140004314X

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Joan, Dark
by Lyall Bush

Joan Didion's basis for departure in her writing has always been her body and her nervous system, though readers could be forgiven for believing that she starts with her note-taking eyes, or her mind and wit, or her ears. All these she has put to mesmerising use for decades as a reporter on the American scene, its stories inside stories, its conscience. That's not how it sounds on paper of course, at least not right away. In various essays-on keeping a notebook, or on living in Malibu, on the year 1968, or on New York after the rape in Central Park-she is, first, a sharp recorder of the small, the local, the debris before her. She is a great assembler of impressions, of manifold data. Her mode is to catch at this and that on the same flypaper: a horrible crime and the self-assurance of a young person. And though there is nothing rational ordering the two, she lets them ping against each other suggestively so that her subject-ultimately some other thing-is the stuff in the air that everyone is feeling but hasn't yet named.
Her subject seems to be the hyper-Modernist one of fracture; she worries that the earth tremors in her native California are a trope for the national consciousness and experience, that coherence may be losing out to moral confusion, and maybe just as easily to facts buried in the earth. She is interested in the difference between what is true and what is probably true, and she's quite catholic (in just about every one of her essays) in her way of sussing out that gap. She lays out story and scene, with a plain style that suggests both a personal point of view and a national conscience. She gathers witty scenes together with nervous ones and absurd ones. She has a great ear for important professional and sub-group jargon, and she can work up a canvas in which all that language is masking some subtextual jitteriness. She can make the pseudoconfidence of authorities appear to be presenting symptoms for the apocalypse. "The center was not holding," she begins her essay, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem". "It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled."
Since the mid-1960s that has been her basic grammar, the parataxis borrowed from Hemingway and the Old Testament. It's her signature style and for decades now it has suited the epiphanies in her personal essays, the zeitgeist musings of her political fictions, and the jeremiad crescendos of her major essays. The style is her way of channelling the nation's voice into her own, of letting us see how she regards her psyche as a Rorshach of the national mood, as antennae trained on California in general (in other words madness, the future, utopia, dystopia, the place where all the shadows sleep) that are just a little more finely tuned than anyone else's.
The flatness and the unflinching directness of her writing are also key. She seems to have more honesty about herself, about her mental state, her psychiatric reports, her worries, her convictions, her randomly assembled life, than anyone else. At just about any point in her writing life she seems to have known which epicenter to move towards. Even when she lived by the ocean, in Malibu, she drew a picture of it as central to something. She seems to have seen the country, the United States, at the tissue-and-bone level. She seems to have read its trails, its secrets, better than anyone else. She seems to speak from far inside some lonely up-late-at-night visionary place. When you read her best essays and books you can find yourself holding your breath, keeping present for the insight that you can feel her sentences gearing up to, the dim-tide feeling she's suggesting about the present and future, the ongoing harbingers she seems to find in her subjects. "I could taste the peach," she writes in "Goodbye To All That", her essay about her eight-year sojourn in New York that ended with a move back to her native California. She remembers having bought the peach on Lexington Avenue in her first summer in the city, and as she describes it, her little scene blows into a Sinatra song about the passage of time:
"I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later-because I did not belong there, did not come from there-but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs."

Taking simple clauses joined by "and" she turns a Beat list into a dark Hemingway-esque probing of the past. The democracy of her grammar puts T.S. Eliot's Prufrock into play with an image of Marilyn Monroe-and all of that inside a long Whitman line about the city of juxtapositions.
The second paragraph of "On Keeping a Notebook" might be from La Chanson de Roland, so present is Didion's sense of an urgent destiny: "Here is what it is," she writes, about a line in her notebook that she once wrote down and now can't quite get back to:

"Here is what it is: the girl has been on the Eastern Shore, and now she is going back to the city, leaving the man beside her, and all she can see ahead are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 A.M. long-distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960? 1961?)."

Didion's virtuoso talents are on display here: her air of intimacy and confession, the conjunctions that pool into a self-hypnotised gaze, the lush sense impressions ("viscous summer sidewalks"), the novelistic details, the feeling she gives her readers of deep access to her mind, its restless ordering.
Her latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a memoir, a book-length study of what happened to her in the year after her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, died. Having been married for 40 years, and having spent most days writing together, consulting with each other, and most evenings dining together or with friends, her book is a record of the hour of his death and the days after, when she continued to not quite understand what had happened, and the months after that of grieving and being regularly stunned by the fact of his passing. But while most books on grieving look at the loss of a loved one in retrospect, hers feels, as her writing always does, as if it's taking place in the present-breathless, essential: "I remember thinking that I needed to discuss this with John," she writes early on, meaning his death in general and the hour when she came home from the emergency room after he had been pronounced dead. Faced with an empty apartment she wonders what her husband would make of the strangeness. It's a snapshot of her state of mind at the time, and though she recognises the absurdity of the wish, she writes, as she has always done, to document the moment, the reeling and unreal state of mind she found herself in, its habit of producing magical thinking. The book's first hundred pages, in fact, has a certain time-bound drama about it. Not believing that what has happened to her (or to him) is real, and certain that the time of death is a reversible event, she reconstructs on paper, in several different ways, what John was doing just before he died: drinking Scotch, sitting down to dinner. She records how she went back to study her building's door log to determine when John's gurney left the building, in order to ascertain, in the interstices of hospital logs, the moment of his death. Back from the emergency room, she wonders if she can fly to California, arrive there before the West Coast hour of John's death, and somehow change what has happened. "Maybe," she writes, "he wasn't dead in California." She held on to John's shoes so that when he came back he would have something to wear. Most amazingly, she remembers avidly wanting an autopsy:
"I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher's case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed. I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress. I still wanted one. I had to know how and why and when it had happened."

She has decided that knowing exactly how he died might give her the power, or the craft, to turn back time, to edit the event and give it a proper conclusion. Once she begins to accept his death, she wants to report to us what grief is like. It is not sadness or loneliness, she says-like the longing of children whose parents have died. Real grief "comes in waves", "with paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."
And so the writer who can break down national moments for her readers, who can deconstruct a political season, and lay out the lyric of her youth, turns out to be a brilliant recorder, explainer, and close-up narrator of grave sorrow and dread in her own life. In this memoir she isn't reaching after something else, nor does she show any interest in disguising her pain or turning it into life wisdom. For over 200 pages she stays close to her family story-not to recover, not to learn, not to show a brave face-but to demonstrate how her usually orderly habit of research and thought, writing and rewriting, fail her in the face of this death. She ventures out only literally, to care for her daughter, Quintana, in the spring after John's death. Quintana, who was in the hospital when John died, has ended up there again, with complications from a staph infection. This time it's at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a part of the country where she and John lived for 25 years. It's here that the book shows something of a turn. In California she works to chart a clear path from her hotel, the Beverly Wilshire, and the hospital, aiming to circumvent the minefield of memories that lie between and around the two. There is the theatre where she and John saw The Graduate in 1968. There is a television commercial that shows a stretch of the Pacific Highway close to where she lived for a few years in the mid-1960s. Each time she feels terror and blindness. Each time she, or her book, shows a dawning sense that she is not going to write a better ending.
Her book begins with something like that, scraps of lines she wrote a few weeks after John's death in January 2004. And several times she explains that she didn't write again for ten months after that. Yet paper, and the words on it, is her source of understanding and consolation, and so twenty pages before the end, she notes how she returned to the paper trail, circling once more the mystery of his time of death, comparing the hospital record against her building's door log. A chapter before that she recalls how she would tell John her dreams, how one of her dreams ended up in her novel, Play It As It Lays. She is underscoring how she has churned the matter of her life, her physical and mental condition, her impressions about the world and her self in the world, into her books. The Year of Magical Thinking is no different in the flat, driving music of its sentences, in its way of showing thinking so well on paper that a reader feels a little dizzy standing up after reading it, from following the way Didion unmakes and remakes the patterns of her life. She has made in this careful record of her turmoil another of her probes into the unspoken zones of American life, which depends so profoundly on cheer, on shadowless images, and on papering over thoughts of death. So much time elapses as one reads her incantatory prose about the hour of her husband's death that there are moments when her thoughts, her fears and dreams feel like one's own. All that exposure, and in grief: it's amazing.

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