When it comes to the literary establishment, Joan Didion’s name seems to inevitably come to mind. Yet while her National Book Award winning The Year of Magical Thinking has plenty of literary references, its reaches far beyond the literary world into a core emotion felt at some point by almost everyone.
The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s recounting of what many would agree is an absolutely horrible year. Her then 37-year-old daughter, Quintana, is in a coma in a New York hospital. After returning from the hospital on the night of Dec. 30, 2002, Didion’s husband, author John Gregory Dunne, collapses at the dinner table from a massive heart attack. So sudden is his death, Didion’s initial reaction is that he is joking about the type of day they’ve had. The fact is, as she repeats throughout the book, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Dunne’s funeral is postponed until after Quintana is released from the hospital, something that in and of itself is not a certainty, and undergoes physical therapy. Then, two days after the funeral, Quintana collapses from a brain hematoma while walking out of the Los Angeles airport. Didion is back to sitting watch over her, this time on the other side of the country.
Many people may not identify with the lives Didion and Dunne led among the literary and Hollywood elite, enjoying trips to Paris and Honolulu and living along the Malibu coast and in New York City. Yet Didion’s story is one of everyman. Her talents give us insight into the variety of emotions that come with the death of a close family member and the threat to the life of another. In fact, Didion takes us to some of the deepest levels of emotion in this regard.
Because they were both writers, Didion and Dunne spent virtually every day together. She lost not just her husband but, to use a cliché she does not, her best and most intimate friend. As she more eloquently puts one of the effects of that loss:
Marriage is memory, marriage is time. …. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger.
Although this is something with which most couples with a good marriage may well agree, it comes into focus only as a result of an insight Didion has because of her grief.
Didion’s book may be at its best when she talks about what she calls “the vortex effect.” It is a set of memories and thoughts set off by something as simple as walking down a hallway or seeing something on television. It reminds you of something. That memory than spontaneously leads to another memory and than yet another. Before you know it, this minor item of everyday life has transported you to several places and times in your life. As Didion notes, for those in grief it seems as if there is almost no place and nothing that allows you to avoid the vortex, let alone rescue you from it. Yet the thinking remains magical in the sense that while grief alters your thought process, you revisit without prompting shared moments of your life.
Didion seeks to document the full gamut of her emotional experience during this interim, particularly the lingering thoughts of whether something could or should have been done differently in the past. Is there a way to avoid this reality? What if such and such had or had not happened? Was there a foreshadowing or warning she and her husband overlooked?
Like many of us, Didion wants answers. Given her background, she digs into the written word, ranging from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas to medical journals to Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. Given her talents, that search becomes part of her story and we see with her that this exploration is far more emotion than intellect.
One realization that strikes her is one that doesn’t result from seeking answers. When crossing a New York City street, she comes face-to-face with another aspect of memory that is entirely temporal.
I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.
Didion’s examination of her experience and emotions leads her to conclude, among other things, that “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” (Although not mentioned in the book, grief would visit her again in August 2005 when Quintana died of pancreatitis). None of us want to know grief. Yet with this work, Didion may help us understand that although the feeling and sense of loss is all too solitary it is one that binds us all at some point in life.