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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Didion Makes a Masterpiece: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Knopf: October 2005

During a recent KQED interview, Joan Didion explains Magical Thinking:

“Anthropologists talk about magical thinking… a lot of tribal thinking is magical in that if we do such and such, then we will be blessed, then we will have rain, then we will…”

Didion, in the midst of devastating grief after the deaths of husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, is still coming to terms with her loss. She continues, “I thought that if I did certain things correctly and followed certain rituals, he would come back.”

In The Year Of Magical Thinking, a few hours after her husband’s death, Didion creates a severe rationalization which allows her to remain a “cool customer” in the months ahead. Magical thinking leads to self-pity, she reasons, self-pity leads to a vortex of painful memories, and the vortex leads to a complete absence of logic; a mind-numbing despair. She keeps herself from falling into the vortex by sheer force of intellectual will. Yet it is her impenetrable will — her desire for the intellect to assuage her grief — which paradoxically causes her to fall into the vortex before she knows what is happening.

Didion’s magical thinking, along with her futile resistance to it, dominates the book. In one poignant scene, while packing up John’s clothes, she says, “I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: He would need shoes if he was to return.” She continues, “The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.”

The Year Of Magical Thinking is an intense journey, dense with complex meaning and emotion. While Didion tries to get through the day without her husband, she must at the same time care for her hospitalized daughter, who is unconscious in the hospital when her father dies. Quintana spends several months after John’s death in the Intensive Care Unit. (Within the time span of the narrative, Quintana is still alive, but shortly after Didion completed the book she died of an infection.)

As Didion attempts to comfort Quintana during her recovery from emergency brain surgery, she whispers, “I’m here. You’re safe.” Didion calls this “…my basic promise to her. I would not leave. I would take care of her. She would be all right. It also occurred to me that this was a promise I could not keep. I could not always take care of her. I could not never leave her.”

Between the lines, Didion is essentially drowning in self-pity, despite trying with all of her might to avoid it. In the hands of virtually any other writer, a first person’s account of never-ending, heart-wrenching pain would have been virtually unreadable. She deserves without question this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction for her considerable writing talent. She turns what in lesser hands could have been a repetitive, whining memoir into a beautiful, suspenseful story which is highly relevant to readers dealing with the loss of a loved one. It is equally emotionally resonant for readers who have not gone through the grief process yet, but have strong attachments to their spouses or families. Honestly, readers who love their pet goldfish will feel affected by this book. It’s simply that good.

Indeed, although Joan Didion seems brave and in control in dealing with her friends and family during the memoir, she communicates her inner world of panic and confusion to the reader in clear, crisp prose. The reader is taken into her confidence, resulting in a truly amazing, deeply personal insight into the grief process.

Didion, like many Americans in the 21st century, is not deeply religious. She dismisses both God and the afterlife in her story. She is a determined rationalist, speculating that John now dwells in the “eternal dark.” She must, then, allow his gradual erasure from her life. She lives in constant suspense: “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him,” she says. “This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of a response.” She lives a life of unfinished conversations. At the end of The Year Of Magical Thinking, she marks the first anniversary of John’s death. Her decision to eradicate her impulse to talk to him at this point is the lone instance where the book rings a bit false. This is understandable, however, as she continues to grieve.Overall, this is a remarkable, honest, and original account of Didion’s painful, magical year. In the writing of this book, she tells KQED she felt catharsis, the beginning of letting go. Readers saddened by her loss, after finishing this book, can only hope that for Didion, soon the grief will slowly dissipate as the healing begins.

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