Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Even for someone without the formidable writing skills of Joan Didion there's a story of significant dimensions to be told here: A few days after Didion's daughter lapses into a coma for reasons not entirely clear, her husband of nearly 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, suddenly suffers and dies from a cardiac event in their home, which Didion witnesses just as she's about to serve dinner. Her daughter's health remains precarious over the year that follows. Because of Didion's and Dunne's reputation, or even fame, there's an odd blending here of facile gossipy fascination and genuinely gripping story of human pathos. As we have seen, Didion has spent much of her career trafficking in highly personalized anxiety and dread, and here she is, out of a long life of evident privilege, suddenly confronted with samples of some her worst nightmares—some of the worst nightmares of anyone. I found my sympathies thus not entirely unmixed, though more often than not feeling for her, and achingly so. One doctor very early, shortly after the death of her husband—I mean literally in the few hours following—refers to her as "a pretty cool customer," which rings true in every way imaginable. Yet her life's nonfiction work, even as it maintains the pose, makes apparent that she is actually anything but. Acting as if she is "a pretty cool customer" is simply what she knows to do. Typically enough, for example, she reports, and with a good deal of lucidity, on how she is unable to throw away Dunne's shoes because he will need them when he comes back, even as she more than readily acknowledges how well she knows he is not coming back. Even at the end of the book, when she is writing a year and more out from the events, she notes in passing that she still has the shoes. Things like that make this finely observed work, to a remarkable degree. Sudden death, even long-expected death, does have a way of throwing one into such mindsets. The denial of reality is very clear in such moments. One may continue to function entirely as someone who has accepted reality, yet the denial rages on inside, consciously or not. Didion, thrown willy-nilly into the greatest extremities of her life, reports back with exactly the kind of poise and eye for the telling detail and sharply etched prose that we have come to expect from her in even the most dispassionate areas. It makes me suspect what a lifeline her work must be for her, and I find myself respecting her for it all the more.

In case it's not at the library.

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