The Year of Magical Thinking

In which I review The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir of the year following the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her adult daughter.

What it’s about: New York City, 2003. The journalist, screenwriter and novelist Joan Didion provides an account of her grief process in the year following the sudden death of her husband, the screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. Just a few days before John’s death, the couple’s adult daughter Quintana had been hospitalised with pneumonia and septic shock, and was in a medically-induced coma. Joan describes returning with John to their New York apartment to prepare dinner, where John had a seizure and fell to the floor. Joan calls paramedics to the apartment and follows them to the hospital where John is pronounced dead. A hospital social worker describes Joan to a colleague as “a pretty cool customer“, words that continue to haunt her as she struggles to accept John’s death.

After John’s death, Joan struggles with irrational but persistent beliefs that he has not died and was buried alive (the “magical thinking” of the title), and saves a pair of his shoes in case he should return one day. She undertakes rigorous research about John’s death in the hope of spotting errors or oversights in his treatment, or a course of action that might have prevented his death. She also undertakes extensive reading about grief and mourning, noting the lack of useful writing and research on these subjects. She takes comfort in descriptions of the physical and psychological after-effects of grief, and also refers to works of classic literature involving death and mourning.

Quintana slowly improves and leaves hospital, and is able to attend John’s funeral service, but suffers a brain hemorrhage a few weeks later when she and her husband fly to California. Joan travels to Los Angeles to care for Quintana, carefully calibrating her movements so as not to enter “the vortex” of painful memories of her earlier married life. Despite her attempts at control, she is persistently haunted by memories of John and the young Quintana, and recalls a number of conversations in which John had predicted his own death.

As Quintana slowly recovers, Joan struggles to adjust to life as a widow, and queries her ability to write again without John as her collaborator and editor. She travels to Boston to report on political party conventions, but flees the convention hall when she becomes overwhelmed with memories of John. She ponders her own experience of grief as a type of mental illness that leaves her “prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss” and persistent feelings of the meaninglessness of her existence. She also considers “the question of self-pity“, which she concludes is a normal if socially reviled part of the grieving process.

As the first anniversary of John’s death approaches, Joan receives the full autopsy report of his death, which confirm that he died instantly. Slowly, Joan resolves to accept that John’s death was inevitable and that she would not have been able to save him, and that she must end her year of magical thinking, though notes that “[t]he craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none“. The book finishes with Joan’s memory of swimming with John near a cave in the Portuguese Bend Reserve in California, when Quintana was a child. “Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong,” she recalls. “John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.”

Why it’s a classic: The Year of Magical Thinking was published in 2005 when Joan Didion was 71, and by then established as one of the finest American writers of her generation. A professional writer since her late teens, she moved effortlessly between journalism, political reportage, novels and film screenplays, the latter co-written with her husband John Gregory Dunne.

Didion’s non-fiction writing became associated with the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Inspired by Truman Capote’s 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, the New Journalists approached their material from a subjective first-person perspective, often placing themselves as a character within and commenting on the action, and using metaphor, non-linear timelines and speculative rather than fact-based analysis to tell their story. Like most cultural movements of the 1960s, the movement was dominated by men – Capote, Tom Wolfe (who coined the term “New Journalism” in 1973), Hunter S Thompson and Norman Mailer – in which Didion impressively held her own. She became famous for the precise crystalline quality of her prose, coolly and forensically dissecting the ugly realities of hippie counterculture of 1970s California, the moral void of Hollywood and the hypocrisies of American domestic and foreign policy.

Didion’s essays and magazine articles were collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), and she had successes with her 1970 novel Play It as It Lays (which she later adapted for a film version in 1972) and A Book of Common Prayer in 1977. She and Dunne had considerable success as screenwriters, including The Panic in Needle Park which won a prize at the 1971 Cannes Festival, and the massively successful 1976 reboot of A Star Is Born starring Barbra Streisand. The couple spent eight years working on a screenplay about the tragic life of newscaster Jessica Savitch, which was reworked against their wishes by studio executives into a glossy romance starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Dunne chronicled their unhappy experiences into a 1997 book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, effectively signposting the end of their Hollywood career.

While The Year of Magical Thinking wasn’t entirely without precedent – Didion had written extensively about her struggles with depression and psychiatric treatment – it came somewhat out of left-field as a book noone (including Didion herself) expected her to write. On its publication, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, both for its evocation of Didion’s painful lived experience, the poise and devastating directness of her prose, and her many insights into Western culture’s inability to deal properly with death and grieving. The book won the 2005 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Didion’s observations about the scarcity of writing about grief proved to be talismanic: the book became an unlikely national bestseller, and being hailed as the most important piece of grief literature since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book On Death and Dying. Didion undertook an extensive press tour to promote the book, giving public readings and interviews, exposing her to a wider audience than had ever read The White Album or her New Yorker articles. The sight of Didion – tiny, birdlike, reserved, quivering with anxiety – being interviewed by popular broadcasters like Oprah Winfrey was affecting if deeply strange experience. In a twist of fate worthy of one of her novels, Didion became the world’s least likely grief counsellor, blinking nervously as interviewers and fans gushed about how much the book had helped them navigate their own grief.

Later in 2005 while Didion was promoting The Year of Magical Thinking, Quintana died, less than two years after her initial illness. When invited to revise the book to incorporate Quintana’s death, Didion refused, stating “It’s finished” – a bold assertion, in retrospect, that books should be allowed to exist on their own terms without recourse to autobiography. A few years later, she worked with David Hare on a stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, including new material that covered the loss of Quintana. Scripted as a one-woman monologue and starring Vanessa Redgrave as “Joan”, the play was successfully produced in New York in 2007 and in London in 2008. Didion appeared again in promotional events for the play, expressing bewilderment at being played by a famous (and considerably taller) actress.

In 2011, Didion published Blue Nights, an unbearably sad reflection on her perceived shortcomings as a mother and her inability to find sense or meaning in Quintana’s early death. A 2017 documentary about Didion, The Centre Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne and broadcast on Netflix, was another surprise hit, further cementing her unlikely status as a cult figure.

Didion died two weeks at the age of 87. In the many glowing obituaries published around the world, The Year of Magical Thinking featured prominently as one of her greatest achievements. Despite its relative newness, the book regularly features in lists of modern classics, and placed second in the Guardian’s 2016 survey of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of all time.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet in the form of a lei, made from gardenia blossoms (that hopefully won’t get sucked into the drain of a swimming pool). I’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking several times – including, memorably, on a long flight to New Zealand in 2016 to attend my father’s funeral – and I count it among my favourite non-fiction books. I was inspired to write about it for this blog project following the news of Didion’s death, feeling confident that as a “modern classic” it fulfilled at least one of my criteria.

Like nearly everyone else who has read The Year of Magical Thinking (except possibly the critic who called Didion “a neurasthenic Cher”), I adored it, and feel mildly intimidated about the task of trying to analyse Didion’s work. Perhaps the best place to start is the opening paragraph :

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

How can a book with this type of spare Hemingwayesque prose, the lines set out portentously on the page like a haiku, possibly have become an international bestseller and a beloved and much-quoted testament to grief? The answer is, I think, embedded in the question: in Didion’s work, style and substance, form and content, subject and subjectivity are all the same thing. “The way I write is who I am” she declares early on, admitting that her writing became “a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” The project of writing the book, she explains, “is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”

Though she declares that “I need more than words to find the meaning“, as a writer, words are (painfully) all she has. The brilliance and tragedy of the book lies in Didion’s extraordinary ability to analyse and articulate her grief, while simultaneously struggling to find language that will adequately explain her distress. In its opening chapters, The Year of Magical Thinking is a catalogue of the treachery of language, and its inadequacy to understand the “obliterative shock” of death, which becomes “dislocating to both body and mind.” Random fragments of poetry return again and again to haunt her: “I tell you that I shall not live two days“, Gawain is asked in the Chanson de Roland, fuse eerily with her recall of conversations with John in which he predicts his own death. Words that are meant to bring enlightenment, like the Latin chant performed for John in the cathedral, turn out to be meaningless. “But I did the ritual. I did it all“, Joan thinks, furious that this still didn’t bring John back, and baffled that she could believe this even possible.

The words of others, too, are more often a torment than a comfort. The social worker’s unwittingly cruel words “She’s a pretty cool customer” become a scourge that Didion repeatedly flays herself with, wondering (as her readers do, too) whether her natural reserve and exacting intelligence alienate her from the world. Memories of John’s accusations during arguments (“Why do you always have to have the last word? For once in your life just let it go“) return like a curse from beyond the grave, as she confronts life without John as her first reader and literary critic.

And so, like the cool customer she is, she turns to the textbooks. “In time of trouble,” she writes, “I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control,” though this too provides little help. “In my rational mind I knew that“, she states, after reading a medical textbook about the likelihood of patients surviving cardiac arrest. Then she hits Return and starts a new sentence: “I was not however operating from my rational mind.”

What does provide help, unexpectedly, is Emily Post’s 1922 book Etiquette In Society, In Business, In Politics, And At Home (itself a national bestseller on its publication) which explains the psychological impact of grief more eloquently than the medical literature. “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically,” Mrs Post writes, approvingly quoted by Joan. “Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely… At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.” Didion correctly diagnoses the superior wisdom of Mrs Post’s approach, since “[s]he wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view” and when “the act of dying had not yet been professionalized“, occurring “up close, at home“.

This leads Didion into one of her most perceptive and oft-quoted points: the utter inadequacy of post-capitalist Western culture to deal with death, replaced by what anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer calls “a new ethical duty to enjoy oneself” and the treatment of mourning as “morbid self-indulgence”. Grief gets hidden, Didion writes, because “death now occurs largely offstage“. Didion’s grief gives her new perception to recognise her own devastation in other people, a new community of the hidden: “People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to others who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness.” Towards the end of the book, she performs a similar autopsy on “the question of self-pity“, which she describes as “the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects“, but something that “the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need” to feel.

In the midst of all this profound insight and fearless reckoning with social taboos around dying, The Year of Magical Thinking is also a fascinating portrait of Didion’s life of fabulous, almost cult-like celebrity. Much of the book reads like an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful by way of early Woody Allen: Joan and John’s apartment in New York City, daily walks in Central Park, lazy afternoons around the pool in California with good friends Katherine Ross and Conrad Hall, casual talk of renting Lee Grant’s house in Zuma Beach, flying visits to director Tony Richardson in St-Tropez, Joan’s near-permanent residence at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when she’s in Los Angeles, and endless meals in chic restaurants that apparently don’t require an advance booking.

Didion’s peak moment of White Lady Privilege occurs when she describes a photo of her and John during the filming of Panic in Needle Park: “It was our first picture. We went with it to the Cannes festival. It was the first time I had ever been to Europe and we were travelling first-class on Twentieth Century-Fox and I boarded the plane barefoot, it was that period, 1971.” As the great critic Kate Camp pointed out in her 2015 review: “As if there was some time in history when we were all boarding our first-class flights to Cannes, barefoot!” Somehow, Didion gets away with this, partially because she’s unapologetic about her life, but mostly because she’s aware that even her celebrity, intellect and connections aren’t enough to protect her from “the vortex” when John dies. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it“, she writes, and even the most meticulously organised are unprepared for “the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.

Didion ends the book in a place of exhaustion, accepting that she must end her year of magical thinking, but aware of the psychological toll her grief has taken. “I notice that I have lost the skills for ordinary social encounters“, she reports. “I notice that I get up from dinner too abruptly. I also notice that I do not have the resilience I had a year ago.”

While the subject matter is grim and Didion’s anguish is wrenching to read, there’s something exhilarating about The Year of Magical Thinking, which in its own high-minded intellectual way creates a different type of magic. By staring into the void and reporting her observations with clarity and steely courage, Didion tears away the veil of mystery that hangs over death, and in doing so, finds her away through, if not out of, the labyrinth of her own grief.

What the “Joan” of the narrative doesn’t realise – and what Didion the author perhaps didn’t realise – was how much comfort this book would give to its millions of readers. I’ve lost count of the number of friends who have cited The Year of Magical Thinking as an essential guide to understanding their own grief after the death of a loved one, or others who assured me that “it would help” when I lost my parents. Fortunately for me, I was already aware of the book, and knew it would be waiting for me when I faced my own vortex.

For all its therapeutic benefits, The Year of Magical Thinking also deserves its place as a classic for the magisterial quality of Didion’s prose, the rigorousness of her thinking, her persistent refusal of self-help clichés and her relentless battle to penetrate beneath the polished surface of her writing. It’s also a lovely example of how prose can, at its best, assume the haunting power of poetry, especially in the echoing of repeated images: the gardenia blossoms in the pool, the orchid leis, John’s private love-message “More than one more day“. For all her anxieties and admissions of failure, Didion is one cool customer who did pretty good.

Quotable Quote: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. 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 their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

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