The 100 best nonfiction books: No 2- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion( 2005)

This steely and devastating examination of the authors grief in accordance with the sudden death of her husband changed the nature of writing about bereavement

No 100 in this series considered the possibility of humanitys imminent doom from the most extensive global perspective. With No 99, the focus changes into a narrower frame thats cooler, most intimate and profoundly personal. In December 2003, as an acute, lifelong reporter of her inner nations, Joan Didion was presented with a unique opportunity to examine the experience of bereavement.

Love and demise are the themes of the great novels, but the emotion that connections love and demise sorrow is more often the stuff of memoir than fiction. Still, you have to be a very special kind of novelist to find the detachment to analyze a devastating personal loss, especially if you are going to write about it inside out. In The Year of Magical Thinking this is precisely what Didion does.

The result is a classic of mourning thats also the apotheosis of baby-boomer reportage, a muted festivity of the enthralling ego. Misery memoirs are commonplace today Joyce Carol Oatess A Widows Story ( 2011) is a typical example but Didions contribution to the genre created it to the status of literature, a phase acknowledged by the playwright David Hare, who directed the authors own version in a stage adaptation starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

Cold, clear, precise, and with her feelings mostly held in check through a web of words, Didion narrates a year that began when her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a fatal heart attack in the couples Upper East Side apartment on the evening of 30 December 2003.( Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it objectives .) Surgical in its exquisite accuracy, and finally serene, Didions memoir helps to purging her sorrow and to set her loss in the new context of widowhood.

Interpolated in the agony of this tale is the parallel drama of their daughter Quintanas medical emergency, hospitalised in New York with a instance of pneumonia that became septic shock. Indeed, Quintana was still unconscious in the intensive care unit of Beth Israel North hospital when her father died. During 2004, Quintana recovered, then collapsed again with bleed in her brain. Less than two years later, she died of acute pancreatitis at the age of 39, after a series of traumatic hospitalisations and just before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking , Didions bestselling volume to date. In Blue Nights , published six years later, Didion sets out to write Quintanas elegy, but understandably and perhaps inevitably, can scarcely bringing herself to face the task.

Taken together, these two volumes, but especially Magical Thinking , consolidate Didions formidable reputation as one of the USs greatest postwar exponents of first-person reportage. Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker , captures the essence of Didion: People liked the collect Slouching Towards Bethlehem ( though it was not, at first, a big vendor ). People were intrigued by Play It as It Lays , Didions second novel, which came out two years later( though it got some hostile reviews ). Principally, though, everyone was fascinated by the authorial persona, the hypersensitive neurasthenic who drove a Corvette Stingray, the frail gamine with the migraine headaches and the dark glasses and the searchlight intellect, the writer who seemed to know in her bones what readers were afraid to face, which is that the centre no longer holds, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, the storyline is broken.


Joan Didion with her husband John Gregory Dunne in 1977. Photograph: CG/ AP

The storyline for The Year of Magical Thinking ( a title which takes its inspiration from the anthropological utilize of the term magical reasoning, by which catastrophic events can be averted) is simply the rollercoaster of Didions grief in the aftermath of Dunnes death. Didion reports several examples of her own magical reasoning, particularly the route in which she cannot give away her husbands shoes, because, she supposed, he would need them when he returned.

At first, Didions memoir refracts her ache through literature, her own and other people, but these volumes leave her unsatisfied. In hour of trouble, she writes, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Devoted that sorrow remained the most general of adversities its literature seemed remarkably spare. There was the periodical CS Lewis kept after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed , but not much else.

Slowly, her defenses crumble on the page. I wanted to scream, she writes. I wanted him back. Then, via her own misgiving of demise( that offstage nemesis) and her quotidian fears for her own resilience( I began feeling fragile, unstable What if I fell ?), she comes face to face with an abyss of sorrow. Its one of her finest prose passages.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate( we are aware) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined demise. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the demise is sudden to feeling shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and intellect. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool the consumer who believe their husband is about to return and require his shoes.

The Year of Magical Thinking is an unforgettable tour de force. Written in extremis, apparently in a white heat, from October to December 2004, it is sometimes perverse and often mystify: at once steely and precise, yet shadowy and vague, candid yet obsessively discreet. It juxtaposes a demise with a wedding, reporting the one in precise detail, the other in piercing fragments that contrive to be haunting as well as sentimental. John Gregory Dunne is keenly present on every page, yet absent in character. Didions version projects honesty yet leaves many regions of legitimate curiosity( how good a wedding? How intimate? How secure ?) quite blank and unsatisfied.

In this route, a storyline that begins on the Upper East Side in New York City becomes universal, profound and uplifting, a mirror in which the desolate and the bereaved of all communities can find succour. Ultimately, Joan Didion has joined that select band of writers, led by CS Lewis, who have transformed sorrow into literature.

A signature line

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that 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 for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

Three to compare

CS Lewis: A Grief Observed ( 1961)
Joan Didion: Slouching Towards Bethlehem ( 1968)
Joan Didion: Blue Nights ( 2011)

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