The Last Thing She Wanted

After John—and Quintana: Joan Didion grapples with grief in a new book of common prayer

The heart sinks at the very idea of Joan Didion's new book. The Year of Magical Thinking is a meticulous chronicle of a wretched spell that began on December 30, 2003, when her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died of a massive coronary in their Upper East Side apartment while their only child, Quintana Roo, lay unconscious in an ICU nearby, stricken with pneumonia that had quickly developed into septic shock. The writer who famously cut to passages from her psychiatric report in "The White Album" here splices in her husband's autopsy and her daughter's CT scan. Can we stand to read this book? What kind of mad fortitude did it take to write it?

Didion notes the paucity of grief literature and remarks on the "rejection of public mourning." No great mystery there: Death is something the living would rather not dwell on. But our apprehension also has to do with the mourner in question—the brittle woman who has emerged from the first-person essays and fictional alter egos over 40 years. The keening voice is as morbidly seductive and passively theatrical as ever: the poet of existential nausea, the sufferer of migraines, the compulsive weeper hiding her tears behind outsize sunglasses. Still, Didion, a confessional journalist too self-conscious to be exhibitionistic, would seem outmatched by this tragedy—one that exceeds the scope of the book: Quintana died in August, 20 months after her father, eight months after her mother's year of magical thinking was supposed to have ended.

"Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?" Didion wonders. And was it because she had no dreams in the months following her husband's death that she had to write? You're reminded that this is the reporter who once revealed that "working did to the trouble what gin did to the pain." You're reminded, too, mere pages in, that Didion has always been obsessed with disjunction—narrative breakdown, the erasure of meaning—and is never more lucid than when she realizes the impossibility of clarity.

Joan of dark: Didion
photo: Bridgette Lacombe
Joan of dark: Didion

Details

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp., $23.95

In The White Album's landmark title piece, the part-time screenwriter sets up her magical mystery tour by announcing that she's "mislaid" the script: "I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no 'meaning' beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience." More than 25 years later, the new widow searches again for a kaleidoscope form to fit her feelings: "The way I write is who I am . . . yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now . . . "

By awful necessity ("This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself"), this memoir sees a further refinement of the Didion style: the incantatory echoes, the tidal italics, the pitch-perfect use of crescendo and staccato. Occasionally, a tumble of one-sentence paragraphs will act like a rush of blood to the head. Her one-word grafs ("Yet." "No.") might break your heart.

The bereft wife and mother, also the most disciplined of journalists, steadies herself with information: "Let me try a chronology here." She circles back to the night itself, a forensic investigator of her own trauma: John slumped at the dinner table, the paramedics, the social worker who tells the doctor, "It's okay. She's a pretty cool customer." She relives the stunned aftermath, correcting the stress-induced "cognitive defects." She walks us through Quintana's recovery and relapse (a grim cycle that required her to be told three times about her father's death) and illuminates her own descent into superstition and childlike illogic ("How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?").

But her thoughts wander, and the book takes its shape and cadence from a mind trying not to think about the only thing it can think about. "The way you got sideswiped was by going back," Didion decides, only to find that random stimuli can trigger "the vortex effect." She develops a stealthy ritual of exclusion, a protective regimen of not driving certain routes, not looking in certain windows.

Facts are her talismans. Numbing details buttress emotional numbness; she sustains an equipoise between the ethereal and the empirical. It's no surprise that the 21st-century Didion turns out to be a habitual Googler, researching an experimental drug and putting Quintana's chances at "between 56 and 69 percent." Time and again, she hits the books: consulting Freud, finding solace in Auden, attempting to decipher Clinical Neuroanatomy. With some relish, Didion, an avowed Martha Stewart admirer, declares that the best advice can be found in Emily Post's 1922 etiquette guide.

"The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place," she writes. Who knows how much this book allowed its author to "find out" what she thought? It's harrowing to realize that amid grief, painful insights are indistinguishable from helpless self-help: "Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water." But: "Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water." The Year of Magical Thinking is a survivor's manual that understands all too well the limits of its usefulness.

 
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