In December 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died of a heart attack. She had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years and had worked closely with him during that time. They had a daughter who was critically ill in hospital in New York. They had just been to visit her.
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.(3)
And so began Joan Didion’s year of magical thinking.
The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 2000s. The project featured non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury until 2009. The Year of Magical Thinking was published in 2005.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is a novelist and journalist. As a writer she finds her way to her subject through the experiences of the individual, in this book her reactions to her husband’s death was the focus.
This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)
Except, of course, none of it makes any sense; it is ‘the very opposite of meaning’ as she says later and hence this is her year of magical thinking.
Some examples of magical thinking: she cleared out his clothes as she knows one should but she could not give away his shoes. He would need them when he returned, even though she knows he is dead.
She believes that John’s death was her fault, and that it was his fault, and that she should have prevented her daughter’s illness, that she can fix all of this if she knew what to do.
She researches online, as a good journalist, seeks for what she should have done differently for her husband and instructs medical staff as a result of her knowledge.
She had worked very closely with John Gregory Dunne in their 40 years of marriage, and must find a way to write without him by her side. It is more difficult that she can imagine.
Time, especially anniversaries, takes on special significance, as do familiar places, and these carry her down into what she calls a vortex. Even the title of the book, the book’s subject matter, is shaped by a time limit, an anniversary.
I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.
Nor did I want to finish the year.
The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.
I look for resolution and find none. …
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. (224-6)
Death, grief and mourning
This was my second reading of her book. I had the same experience as ten years ago, that is I couldn’t stop reading it. But on re-reading I could see how she made this account so compelling. She writes with a kind of sparseness and with great precision. And she provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.
Her insights are stronger for this. For example she differentiates between grief and mourning; grief being passive, what happens. Mourning is the process of dealing with grief, and requires attention. It takes her some time to get to the mourning. And this book is part of that attention.
And here is her observation on grief and its effects:
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. (189)
It is for such insights and for the strength of her writing that Robert McCrum placed this book second on his Guardian list of best 100 nonfiction books. Joan Didion adapted the book for the stage and the piece was directed by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.
The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion (2005). UK edition by Harper Perennial 227pp
The Decades project on Bookword
In 2018 for the Decades Project I featured non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I selected one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc) and will review the Project in December.
Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:
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