The long goodbye: Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking"

In her extraordinary memoir, Joan Didion grieves for her family and connects with her past — and us

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published October 18, 2005 3:00PM (EDT)

Salon (Salon)
Salon (Salon)

If I could stick my pen in my heart
Spill it all over the stage
Would it satisfy you? Would it slide on by you?

— Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1974

Joan Didion has opened her veins on the page, as we pretty much knew she would. Her only choices, given what has befallen her, were to die herself or to write about it.

The world — and you know what I mean, in this case, by "the world" -- has responded accordingly. In the last four weeks, the New York Times alone has reviewed Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" twice (one of the reviews was by the former poet laureate of the United States, and it was just as tedious as that sounds, if not more so), published an interview/profile piece by Rachel Donadio (quite a good one), and run a lengthy excerpt from the book itself, complete with color photographs of the bone-thin Didion and her personal Ground Zero, the rambling Upper East Side apartment where her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly in December 2003.

How has the personal tragedy of a famous writer become a sort of public ritual, a media event in its own right? If Salman Rushdie or Don DeLillo or Joyce Carol Oates were to publish an account of surviving the sudden death of a spouse and the lingering fatal illness of an adult child, would we be reading about it at such length and in such depth? I hope they and we don't have to discover the answer, but I don't think so. The ingredients of Joan Didion's current media moment are various, but they all have to do with her unique symbolic importance in American culture.

It's one thing to say that Didion is the greatest living writer of American prose, or that "The Year of Magical Thinking" is an unusual book. Viewed through the fishy eye of the literary critic, it's one of the best and most adventurous things she has written. Those are judgments to which I would subscribe, but they tell us only so much. Most of the response to this book is not in fact a response to the book but to the life situation that occasioned it, and perhaps to the fact that it exists at all. A cynical, and not entirely wrongheaded, thing to say here is that our culture is obsessed with "real" events because we hardly experience any, and that the private deaths of Didion's husband and daughter, along with her own private suffering, are in danger of being transformed by endless publicity into spectacles or pseudo-events.

There's more to it than that. Our response is fed by an all too human river of emotions, some of it fast and shallow and some of it deep and black and swollen. Some of it is compassion for a human being many of us imagine we know, and with whom we feel perhaps too strong a sense of identification; some is horrified fascination, even schadenfreude; some of it -- a fair bit, I think -- is hearing the bell toll. It has not wholly escaped our attention that some version of what has befallen Joan Didion and her family will befall us too. Sooner or later people we love will die and if we are what is considered lucky, if we keep living after that happens, we will be left alone waiting for our own appointment.

In her work Didion has sometimes seemed to be the conscience of journalism, while in her life she has enacted its most grandiose dreams about itself. Whether this is a contradiction or just a fact is not clear to me, but in either case it's the source of her symbolic power. She is a piercing intelligence in a field that values rapid response, savvy framework and an ability to regurgitate familiar narratives in clever language, but has almost no patience for actual intellectual activity. Her sharply analytical cast of mind and her evisceration of piety and bullshit -- whether found in the '60s counterculture, the Reagan White House or, as in her new book, the mist-occluded temples of medicine -- have reached us in a muscular but elegant prose style that owes as much to Emily Dickinson as to Hemingway.

Perhaps even more important, Didion framed her intelligence in a persona that was distinctly female, often vulnerable, sometimes neurotic. She was a well-bred California WASP who lived through the epochal experiences of the '60s but never imbibed their mythological essence -- when I interviewed her in 2003, she described herself as a sorority girl during her undergraduate years at Berkeley in the mid-'50s. This voice of self-aware entitlement and breeding, of the skeptical and observant outsider, an acerbic observer of her own foibles as much as those of her society, provoked a profound identification among two or three generations of upper-middle-class readers. In describing her own progress through troubled times, Didion seemed to be describing ours as well.

At the same time, Didion and her husband lived a life of Establishment privilege and glamour, on a scale not exactly replicable today (since the Establishment in question essentially no longer exists). She and Dunne were paid well to write avowedly serious articles for serious publications, most of which have evaporated or bite-sized themselves. They were paid even better to write scripts for Hollywood movies, which involved the ambiguous bargain of being flown around the world, put up in luxurious hotels, treated like minor celebrities and asked to work long hours on rewrites for films that might not get made or might not turn out to be worth making. They dined repeatedly in the fashionable restaurants of New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London; as Didion observes in "The Year of Magical Thinking," they were the sort of people who dealt with a short-term cash flow crisis by decamping to a Hawaiian resort for several weeks.

We all imagine we could endure such experiences and emerge uncorrupted, our critical faculties intact; at any rate, most of us would be willing to try. On the one hand, it was gratifying on a prurient level to have people who seemed like us living that way; on the other hand it was gratifying to learn from Didion's writing that such a life did not apparently free one from the pandemic anxieties and uncertainties of the age. One of the reasons Didion's work is so influential among her fellow writers is that it catalyzes twin reactions that are linked at an unconscious level: the impulse toward self-flagellation (see also: Miller, Judith) and the impulse toward envy. If our work were smarter, sharper, less superficial, we'd get our earthly reward at Elaine's, Zadie Smith at one elbow and Johnny Depp at the other.

All of this is to say that Didion's fans experience her work on an intimate, personal level as well as an intellectual one. (Because of that, her influence on journalism is much more profound than the macho histrionics of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson.) One of the reasons I'm not quoting from "The Year of Magical Thinking" is because you've probably read enough of it by now, if you're interested; another is that your reading of it belongs to you, and mine to me. I found out about this during that interview two years ago, after the publication of her California memoir, "Where I Was From."

Like many other Californians in New York, I identified, in a gross and general way, with her transcontinental peregrination, and said so in the piece. In person and in her book, Didion reminded me of my mother, and I said that too. A reader sent me a furious e-mail on the day my interview appeared; she thought I was a condescending sexist, seeking to defang a formidable female writer by comparing her to Mommy. I tried to explain that she didn't know my Mommy, who, if not one-tenth as famous as Joan Didion, is nonetheless a writer and roughly the same breed of finishing-school, tough-yet-neurotic and un-defanged California WASP, a breed now rare to the point of extinction. We ended up by extending mutual apologies and forgiving each other for our perceived sins, but I learned two things that should have been clear all along: 1) My profoundly meaningful anecdote had only interfered with this reader's Didion experience (which she apparently preferred to an O'Hehir experience); and 2) The Didion trick, of framing your journalistic encounters with the world in personal terms, isn't as easy as it looks.

During our interview, I followed Didion into the kitchen of that vast 71st Street apartment (a source of awe and envy for any New Yorker) so she could fetch me an Evian water. This might seem unlikely -- Joan Didion, of all people, fetching drinks for random visitors -- but in reading "The Year of Magical Thinking" you develop a clear sense of how closely the persona of Joan Didion, writer, was intertwined with those of John Gregory Dunne's wife and Quintana Roo Dunne's mother. When her husband had his fatal heart attack on the night of Dec. 30, 2003, she had just poured him a second scotch and was fixing their dinner.

Dunne came in the kitchen while we were there and introduced himself. I shook his hand and said something conventional about how I admired his work. I felt a faint tingle of dishonesty and guilt in that moment. Like a lot of Didion's fans I held the view that Dunne was the other writer in the household. I had read a lot of his work for a project of my own, a book about Irish-American writers that never got off the ground. If you had pressed me, I guess I would have said that Dunne had frittered away too much of his considerable talent on insubstantial projects.

All along I understood that that opinion had something specious about it, the superior wisdom of a younger and much less accomplished writer. After reading "The Year of Magical Thinking" I understand more. I understand how crucial Didion and Dunne were in each other's writing lives, how Dunne was her first editor, first critic and primary audience, and how difficult it is for her to write without him. I understand that Dunne in his last months -- when he seemed enveloped in depression and premonitions of his death -- viewed his own career in a harsher light than anyone else ever could. Finally, Didion's self-examining prose has worked its usual magic, and I understand that the person I was judging (as happens so often when we criticize others) was not John Gregory Dunne but myself.

Didion's family tragedy could be seen as a signal event in the baby-boom generation's gradual loss of power (even if, at 70, she is a shade too old to be a boomer herself). If the person appointed to explain a certain slice of American history to itself, to disabuse it of its illusions while honoring its dreams, has seen her world implode and her family destroyed, then an epistemological crack has opened in the world. (Again, you know what I mean by the world.) The 20th century is fading in the rear-view mirror -- Nixon brandishing the Bomb, Che Guevara hopped up on LSD -- and the road ahead is liable to end suddenly and send us flying out into the abyss, like Wile E. Coyote, at any moment.

All true. But given lemons, Didion has made lemonade. As I said earlier, "The Year of Magical Thinking" is more than a painful memoir; it's a moving and ambitious work, novelistic in sweep and character, that happens to be nonfictional. In it, Didion accomplishes something she has only gestured at in previous books: She mimics the digressive, self-narrating workings of the mind, in this case a mind disordered by grief. Her subject, you could say, has always been story, the narratives we construct to make our lives possible or tolerable or meaningful. This is the first sentence of her most famous essay: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

As Didion documents her reaction to Dunne's death and her efforts to manage her daughter's Kafkaesque odyssey from one intensive-care unit to the next -- although Quintana was still alive when she finished the book, Didion knew her long-term odds were not good -- she finds herself, at unwary moments, being dragged into the past. Sometimes the catalysts are large and obvious ones, such as driving the streets of Los Angeles, where Didion and Dunne raised their daughter, or seeing a television commercial that was filmed outside a house above the Pacific Ocean, on the Palos Verdes peninsula, where they lived when they brought Quintana home from the hospital and parked her in a bassinet under the wisteria. Sometimes they are completely random: a visit to the Parker House hotel in Boston, a city where she has never lived; an escalator at Madison Square Garden, a building she hasn't often visited.

In this most tender of Didion's books, these unsummoned memories are the most vivid elements, forging an endearing portrait of a family where bourgeois convention and bohemian eccentricity were mixed in odd quantities. She remembers Dunne standing in the pool at their Brentwood house, reading and rereading "Sophie's Choice" while she worked in the garden. She tells us they were very rarely apart; once, when she had to work an extra day in San Francisco, Dunne took the $17 commuter flight from LAX in an airplane with a smile painted on its nose and took her to dinner at Ernie's, where Jimmy Stewart sees Kim Novak in "Vertigo." She digs up the traces of Quintana's girlhood Dunne buried in his novel "Dutch Shea, Jr.," and recalls a late-summer funeral in 1978 after which Dunne told her that his cardiologist had warned him about the blocked ventricular artery leading to his heart.

Didion's form of grief-madness goes beyond the now-famous detail that she refused to give away Dunne's shoes after he died because, she reasoned, he would need them when he came back. Her memories were more than sad or bittersweet reminiscence; they were active attempts to force a new outcome. She believed, or suspected, that she could reach into the past and change whatever it was that had led her to this place. Would Dunne not be dead, and Quintana not dying, if they had bought a house in Hawaii (as she once wanted)? Or if she had not understood the ambulance lights outside their Brentwood house one night in 1988 as an omen, and agreed to move to New York (as Dunne wanted)? And if we can reach into the past and change it, how do we avoid what Didion calls the appointment-in-Samarra problem, meaning that whenever and however we alter the direction of our lives, the Grim Reaper will always be waiting at our new destination, smiling in toothy satisfaction?

As literary critic George Steiner once explained, it's symptomatic of modernity that the present is ruled by images of the past. I suspect we all lead lives dominated in large part by this variety of magical thinking, and while it undoubtedly gets worse as we get older, it can start when we're very young indeed. That old flame whose appearance in your dreams fills you with joy, that Arts and Crafts house your parents sold in 1983, that one afternoon when it rained but you all went in the lake anyway -- these moments can seem more vivid to us, seem more pregnant with lives unlived and directions untaken, the farther away they recede.

Certainly the unfulfillable quest to recover the past is the great theme of modern literature; it drives all of Faulkner's work, all of Joyce's, all of Nabokov's. The paradigmatic work of modernist fiction is called "In Search of Lost Time," for Christ's sake. The most famous sentence in American literature informs us that we are "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Knowingly or not, Joan Didion -- who has already brought nonfiction into psychological and emotional terrain previously reserved for the novel -- has enlisted herself in this tradition. This chronicle of genuine grief and madness, this loving tribute to her real family, is also Didion's crowning literary achievement.

If we have lost faith in a literal paradise, we can still find a literary or artistic one, precious fragments of the past preserved living on the page, undimmed by the passage of time. Gatsby will always stand hypnotized by the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock; the narrator of "Swann's Way" will always be in bed with his famous cookie, awaiting his mother's goodnight kiss. In that universe John Dunne and his wife will always enjoy an evening drink on their Malibu deck or their Honolulu hotel balcony, smelling the jacaranda or hearing the mynahs sing. They will always keep their daughter safe; they will never grow old. Joan Didion has given her dead husband and daughter the gift Humbert Humbert gives his lost love at the end of "Lolita": By placing the three of them and the life they made together in "the refuge of art," by making them "live in the minds of later generations," she has given them the only form of immortality they may share.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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