The Year of Magical Thinking
I’ve never particularly liked Joan Didion’s writing. Maybe I read it at the wrong time in my life. Maybe I didn’t appreciate the craft. Whichever, I had filed her away in the life’s too short to read any more drawer along with other notables who in my mind emerged during the 1960’s–Susan Sontag, GoreVidal and so forth.
And John Gregory Dunne, her husband, never did much for me either. True Confessions, the movie confused me. Other things irked me so I couldn’t get started. I did like Harp, his quasi-memoir of growing up Irish Catholic in West Hartford, mostly for the line (I think this is it), “I never liked Katherine Hepburn much, all cheekbones and opinions.”
So why has a book about, in part, his death written by his wife wormed its way into my psyche? Irish Catholic that I am, death is ever-present; I collect death stories the way some people collect butterflies or stamps. This is a death story for the ages.Returning from the hospital where their only child lies comatose in ICU with an undiagnosed and life-threatening illness, Didion starts dinner, Dunne pours a Scotch and promptly drops dead.
The balance of the book is the year’s worth of struggles to come to grips with all this while nursing her daughter back to health. That is its own horror-fraught tale. And I have to say this, Didion does a masterful job of moving back and forth from her state of mind to the facts at hand to the fantasy/dream/hope that Dunne will just walk back in the door.
All the things I don’t like about Didion’s writing are all still there: the slightly elevated tone of a better telling you what you ought to know; the contradictions of being a writer and a screenwriter; the native-Californian thing that carries hints of ‘it was a great place until they discovered it.’ But death is too big to be constrained by such, it turns out, minor quibbles. It just overwhelms the landscape of the manuscript the way it does the landscape of survivors’ lives.
I even feel better about Dunne. There’s a wonderful point where Didion reflects on him scolding her, in response to a matter of fact statement she made, that “Catholics don’t take communion, we receive it.” There’s so much in this little exchange. The familiarity in a long-term marriage. The retained sense of origin and difference. Even the frustration of explicating a fundamental difference for the umpteenth time.
It’s little things like that really grabbed me. It is probably a function of advancing age that life, increasingly, seems to me to be lived more in the small moments than in grand events. Now in my second marriage to a non-Catholic I still find myself bristling, a la Dunne, when Mass is referred to as a Service while understanding this is my frustration, not my helpmeet’s.
Maybe that’s why this book grabbed me so. In death the important things emerge and the trivial recede; that which we have in common becomes more apparent than that which keeps us apart. Thank you Joan Didion for reminding me of that.