Monday, June 7, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion is a writer to whom I continually return, usually after finishing a really good novel that inspires useless proclamations from my idiot mouth like, 'there aren't any good books left out there, I've read them all!' It's nice to turn to an old friend who I know won't disappoint. I'm often chided doing this instead of starting something new, but I've talked about why before, and my simplest reasoning is that of comfort. (Like that old Nickel Creek song... Others have excuses, I have my reasons why.)

I realize that Joan Didion isn't an obvious form of comfort, what, with her exhaustive realism and that stone cold prose. She is a realist in every way imaginable and holds nothing to terms of nostalgia or sympathy. Her work is the opposite of ostentatious-- its flat and stark and holds a clear note of not caring. In fact, she scares me most of the time, she really does. Yet, if you pay attention, you will find that beneath her harsh sentence structure with its absence of adjectives exists an adventure story, a field of answers and understanding that cuts banality with that ruthless stiff upper lip. She's funny, too, if you put your ear to the wall.

That said, the work that I've returned to this time, isn't my darling 'Goodbye to All That' or even the raw 'White Album' or blazing California fields in 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem.' I picked up dreariest Didion of all, 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' as I've been doing some magical thinking of my own (and if not reading for narcissistic value, why read at all!?).

It needs to be made clear, before picking up this book, and before taking my words at face value, is that it isn't a downer. Had I understood that before reading it, I may have liked it the first time, instead of growing angrier and angrier at page after page of this:

"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."

I know, right? Yikes.

The first time I read it, I didn't completely digest the idea of 'magical thinking', which is the absolute point of the book. The story exists in the loss of her husband (fellow writer John Gregory Dunne) and the devastating grief that follows. Yet the book is about (listen closely!) a specific coping mechanism of the human spirit. And that, dear reader, is absolutely fascinating.

Didion describes 'magical thinking' as not giving away her late husband's favorite shoes because he might need them, or having to fly back to California in case he comes home. She KNOWS he is dead and gone yet continually tricks herself into acting otherwise. In short, grief makes us crazy. We (I!) do it too. All of the time.

Like many stories of loss, this one is beautiful because it was told too soon. Didion wrote it in the midst of her grief, not as a reflection years later. It is therefore not only raw, but a little crazy. It's the observation of the true observationist, a coin flipped on its head that thrills her readers. She isn't as flat in this telling, as it bounces from clear statements ("Grief is the most general of afflictions.") to wandering to the colloquial ("The singer of the song about walking on through the storm assumes that the storm could otherwise take her down.")

She focuses on shards of memory that haunted her in those first months, like an offhanded comment from John that she may have misinterpreted. Was he talking about Hawaii when he said I was right? Was he hinting at Quintana's illness? (Oh yeah, her daughter is also terminally ill during the entire text, so fun!) It is within these tangents that Didion loses a bit of her terseness and authority. She allows vulnerability in the moment, and does so unapologetically. I focus on the language because, in the end, language is her tell.

And even without the understanding of magical thinking, and cutting through the prose and verbage, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' remains readable because it's also a love story. A real love story-- one so ordinary in its inception that it seems drafted. We learn the story of a marriage as told through grief, and notes on a husband from the one who loved him most. It's the story of love after the infatuation has faded-- the untold happy monotony that New Yorkers label boring (yet examine in awe.)

Woven throughout this love story is also the 'writer' story that Didion slips in out of necessity. We learn her writing process, as she lets us into her day to day life, both before and after the death of her husband. We learn that she keeps cards in her pocket for sudden story ideas, and exchanged notes with John over dinner.

I've read these passages more than any other, and melt when John gives her his card about baseball. It's another shard that she gets stuck on, but I take it as a lesson on How To Be Good At Writing. Writing was breathing to Didion, something I think about often, while living in the city that she contemplated so deeply when wandering around as a 26-27-28 year old girl. Writing was part of her love story, which I can't help but admire in my own magical thinking.

'A Year of Magical Thinking' is so brave that it makes you ache, not the other way around. It yields strength and inspiration to its reader without lecturing us on how to handle loss. She leaves that for Emily Post, and even marvels her for it. But by attending ferociously to her actions throughout grief, Didion arrives at the difference between "the insistence on meaning" and the reconstruction of it. She notes that distinction and bravely embodies it: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Which is also, perhaps, why we return to them.


Amanda said...

sarah, amazing post. i am always inspired by your incredible reflective posts. thanks for yet again hitting it home. love you!

Katie Henly said...

Did you actually finish Emperor's Children or just say so for the blog's sake?