In the grip of grief, fantasy intervenes

Joan Didion, exemplar of rationality, tells how sadness can defy reason

Memoir

October 30, 2005|By DIANE COLE | DIANE COLE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Alfred A. Knopf / 219 pages.

The acclaimed essayist Joan Didion chose a title at once misleading and precisely apt for her extraordinary memoir of loss, The Year of Magical Thinking. No, this is not a book about sorcerers aimed at the Harry Potter set. But it does have very much to do with a particular fantasy that is especially widespread among those recently bereaved: that if only we could turn back the clock, undo some hitherto unseen, fatal flaw, we could make our dead return to the living, and to us.

The moment Didion seeks to isolate - and retract - was the evening of Dec. 30, 2003. Didion and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, had returned to their Manhattan apartment from a grueling hospital visit; their daughter Quintana, 37, was semicomatose with pneumonia and septic shock. Back at home, as she mixed a salad for dinner, Didion became aware that her husband had stopped talking, midconversation. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and neither the ambulance medics nor the emergency room doctors could revive him.

As Didion puts it, "Life changes in the instant." She repeats this refrain incessantly, like a mystic mantra, as if the phrase will compel her to accept the reality of the sudden non-existence of her husband and literary partner of 40 years. It's not that she doesn't "know," rationally, that he's dead; but grief, Didion shows us, by her own example, has little to do with our faculties of reason.

For instance, even after viewing his lifeless body at the hospital, she still refuses to authorize the donation of organs, or even allow the thought of giving away his shoes. After all, Didion asks, "How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?"

And these are only the first glimmerings of the irrational, contradictory ruminations that will beset Didion in the months that follow. For in that single instant of her husband's death, Didion - whose novels and journalism have earned her the reputation as the most rational of writers - had crossed over into the realm of magical thinking that is so characteristic of grief.

Didion is startled by the transformation. This same type of magical thinking, she notes, is quite common in very young children, who believe their words or thoughts have the power to change events. This is also a fixture in fairy tales and children's literature. In the same way that Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, can return home to Kansas by tapping the heels of her ruby slippers, so can we all, with our own exact ritual formula, find our way back to a lost place and time of comfort. Or so we fantasize. But the parallels between the grief-stricken and the very young are not entirely exact. Small children think magically because, developmentally, they cannot yet grasp the concept of reason. Grief-shocked adults regress because tragedy has robbed reason itself of its capacity to make sense of a world that suddenly seems to lack all sense.

Didion records her ruminations with unflinching honesty and devastating acuity. Her memories roam across the decades, from her own wedding years before, to her daughter's wedding just months before, and to any number of family events in between. Although most of these anecdotes provide glimpses of family closeness, others distractingly drop the names of some of the high-powered friends with whom this high-powered couple regularly hobnobbed. But wherever Didion's thoughts stray, they quickly, obsessively, inescapably circle back to the most minute details surrounding her husband's death.

And there is more grief to come. Quintana's months-long recovery from her initial medical crisis is followed by a new calamity. Quintana and her husband had planned to celebrate her newfound health with a vacation. But immediately upon arrival at the Los Angeles airport, Quintana had collapsed, suffering internal bleeding in her brain. After much neurosurgery and many months more of rehabilitation, by book's end - December 2004, one year after Dunne's death - Quintana appears to have recuperated with remarkable resilience. Shortly before the book went to press, however, Quintana suffered further medical complications; she died in August. According to press interviews, Didion declined to include that information in the book - wisely, I think. A daughter's death is not a mere postscript.

Throughout, Didion's spare, even stark language serves to emphasize the raw, blunt nature of grief. Her near-clinical objectivity in describing her emotional state lends the book's first half, especially, a propulsive intensity. It is a tone that is almost impossible to sustain - for writer or reader - over the course of an entire volume. And, by book's end, Didion's signature stylistic mannerisms - her one-sentence paragraphs, her italicized refrains - begin to grow wearying. But then, that is what grief is: as relentlessly repetitive as it is emotionally draining. That she is able to confront and convey those truths without adornment speaks to the magical power of Didion's writing.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges" and writes for U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times, among other national publications.

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