Grief Works

In what might end up being the most quotable review of the year, John Leonard ends his New York Review of Books review of Joan Didion's brave memoir of mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking, by saying "I can't imagine dying without this book." Factoring out the hyperbole of Leonard's style, that's still a hell of a thing to say. But after reading Didion's book, I pretty much agree—only I'd say I can't imagine experiencing the death of a loved one without reading this book. and feel that when I do, lines from The Year of Magical Thinking will be coursing through my mind.

The book, which chronicles the 12 months following December 30, 2003, when Didion's husband, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, collapsed in their New York apartment and died of a massive coronary, is a remarkable example of what Freud called "grief work." Didion's anguish at losing her husband—the man with whom, as she says, she spent nearly 24 hours a day for 40 years, both as a mate and writing partner (they were co-writers of several successful Hollywood screenplays and carefully read each other's prose works)—is imaginably intense, but it's made more so by the fact that at the time of his death, their daughter Quintana had been lying unconscious for five months in a New York hospital, a victim of pneumonia and what her doctors called "septic shock." (Quintana eventually emerges from her illness in this book, giving The Year of Magical Thinking a measure of hope, only to die a few months ago, after the book's completion, which retrospectively magnifies the bereavement of the book considerably.) "This is my attempt," Didion announces near the beginning, "to make sense of the period that followed" her husband's death, "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 the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, and life itself."

"In the midst of life there is death," say the Episcopalians at the graveside. "The meaning of life is that it ends," quoth Kafka. It's impossible to experience one's own being unless one feels that one's being is on the way to extinction, said Heidegger. Most of us apprehend these things in some corner of consciousness but are taken completely by surprise by the actual realities of mortality. Even Didion, who's spent a lifetime in prose dealing with the inexplicabilities of suicide, murder, terminal illness, loss and emotional abandonment in novels like Play It As It Lays, and Democracy, and essay collections like The White Album, finds herself in total denial: "I had shut down all response," she discovers in the days following John's death. She finds herself "a cool customer" in those early days, able to identify Dunne's body at the morgue without tears, and sleepwalking through the wakes and dinners that follow. But when she's alone, things change. "Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." It's a grief that's finally insupportable, and leads Joan Didion, of all people (of all American novelists, perhaps the most dedicated to the primacy of fact, to the ineluctability of the actual) to a year of magical thinking.

By magical thinking, Didion essentially means that, contrary to all the facts—Dunne was genetically predisposed to heart trouble and in fact had a pacemaker implanted in his chest—"I should have been able to save him." Besieged by friends and relatives in the hours after his death, she insists on spending that first night alone, believing somehow that if she did, "he would come back." Cleaning out his closet, she finds herself unable to give away his shoes: "He would need his shoes if he was to return." (Characteristically, she adds: "The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.") Her magical thinking extends to her anxieties about her daughter Quintana in the hospital, who awakens in the weeks after her father's death, still in grave danger, only to hear Didion, in sudden heroic mode, tell her, "You're safe. I'm here." She refuses to give the doctors permission to give her daughter a tracheostomy because, she figures, "if she did not have the trach, she would be fine in the morning, ready to eat, talk, go home." Thinking this over, Didion realizes, "This was demented, but so was I."

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This is Joan Didion, remember, the Queen of Emotional Control, who says "In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control." Who in fact does "go to the literature" throughout this book—to clinical studies, anthropologists and sociologists, to poets and novelists and philosophers, even to Emily Post on the etiquette of mourning. Who is capable of writing as non-magical a sentence as this: "The angiogram . . . showed a long 90 percent narrowing in the circumflex marginal artery, which was considered significant mainly because the circumflex artery fed the same area of the heart as the occluded LAD." Who nonetheless at moments completely falls apart, succumbing to what she calls the "vortex effect," or to the swirl of memory, where one (ostensibly) "safe" memory having nothing to do with her husband connects inexorably to the 40-year web of memories with him, and traps Didion in an awareness of his loss that's so vivid that she feels literally crazy.

In Chapter 17 of The Year of Magical Thinking, an astonishingly concise and accurate statement of the experience of confronting death, Didion writes, "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. . . . We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes . . . We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are trapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can be 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."

Didion confronts this experience with a grace and strength that not even the body of her collected works, graceful and strong as it is, prepares us for. And The Year of Magical Thinking, her most affecting and emotional revealing book, may turn out to be her best and most lasting.


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