Didion’s Not-So-Magical Thinking

I’m trying to sort out what I think about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

I’ve always admired rather than adored or identified with Didion. It seemed to me her best work was created when she was younger, when she still felt fragile and vulnerable and used her writing to steel herself against the cultural and personal abyss roaring beneath her Pappagallo flats. It was in that vein that “Goodbye to All That” was anthemic. Today this essay about leaving NYC still speaks poignantly of a particularly fraught, personal-is-political moment of the mid-twentieth century, as does the rest of the rightfully lauded Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But by the ’70s, when she was more firmly established critically, commercially, and domestically, her writing, always economical, grew sparse and sometimes remote.

She’d always alluded to great feelings, even great passions, but in a way that never threatened to disrupt her prose. No menstrual blood stained her diction; no hysteria drew undue attention to individual paragraphs. She rejected the navel-gazing of her generation as paralyzed introspection, and purported to embrace action, movement, John Wayne sere. But that lack of a psychoanalytical impulse only translated into an ever-cooler inertness, sometimes even a flatline. Politically informed but mostly unaligned, spiritually and ideologically fluent but unconvinced, it was if she didn’t need her reader to like her so much as admire her. As a rule of thumb I admire any woman who doesn’t sing for her supper but in the case of Didion, I did so with a reserve that matched her own.

More and more, I suspect anatomy truly is destiny for, despite my political and academic training, I’ve come to believe our physical bodies are blueprints for the kind of experiences we create or crave or fear. Even as online everything makes it increasingly possible to transcend our bodies, we also are increasingly rooted in, defined and haunted by them. Or is it more that both are of a piece, that our written voices are in fact just another projection of our corporeal beings, however phantom? It is a long, controversial conversation that’s best pursed elsewhere, but I touch on it because any discussion about Didion always reveals these biases.

Suffice it to say I am a tall, blowsy woman with a big voice and a big mouth — there is a reason I call myself a broad rather than a chick — and I write long sentences and pieces that either send you packing or seduce you despite yourself. I’ve never resonated with Didion’s compact limbs and compact prose though I’ve studied the mechanics that facilitate those famously unruffled surfaces. I’ve even copied out some of her passages to experience what it’s like to write with such powerful restraint. But although a rawness always lurks in between those carefully arranged lines, there is something censorious, even stunted, in her economy that displeases me. Her screenplays–hackneyed in a uniquely “let’em’-eat-twinkies” sort of way–also allude to a mercenary quality.

I had intended to go on here and write that Didion’s prose always mirrored her ungenerous, angular physicality but I looked at some of her older bookjackets and a sly-eyed, full-lipped subvert looked back at me. Yes, she was always slim and small, but it would be wrongheaded to assert that she always had been the tiny, hawkish woman she is today. Recent experiences, and perhaps that infamous restraint, have wizened her. Like the irritating comment every woman hears when she hits 30: “Honey, now it’s your ass or your face.”

Which leads me to all the brouhaha that has greeted Didion’s recent publication. Although I still don’t know many who’ve finished the new book, name a major publication or lofty public radio affiliate and you’ll find pages and hours of genuflection at the altar of St. Joan. It is the best-selling book at most bookstores here in New York. Her readings have been standing-room only.

Are people so agog about this new memoir because they feel protective of this fiercely slight woman? Or are they drawn to her brand of “cool customer,” as she describes herself with a characteristic irony? As arguably our nation’s ideal lady writer, hers is a calm, collected femininity: no flab and no fuss. Literally and literarily, we can count on her not to throw herself on her husband’s grave.

She was the right kind of girl, then the right kind of woman. Now we are looking to her to be the right kind of widow.

For central to the intrigue that cloaks Didion like a mink is her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne. While the rest of the country divorced and remarried and divorced again, Dunne and Didion worked and lived together, presiding over the American literary scene as a golden couple who straddled the NYC hustle and Hollywood shuffle seemingly effortlessly. They wrote reviews and nonfiction and fiction and screenplays sometimes together, sometimes separately, and mostly, it was reported, in the same room. But if Dunne’s bluster allowed for–dare I say enabled?– Didion’s remove, I wondered if the safety of that union also hampered her prose. Their codependence seemed key to her status as “the right kind of woman”–as in, not so strident that she couldn’t keep a man. Certainly she leaned on Dunne, as she writes in this memoir, “to stand in between [her] and the rest of the world.”

I must admit — I’m not proud of this — that when the news of Dunne’s death hit the wires I was curious about how his widow would bear the loss. That I might not have been the only one also explains how eagerly her book was anticipated. (Perhaps the breathless reviews are compensation gestures for that prurience?) I wondered: Would her characteristically bloodless prose gain some color? Would the floodgates open, shedding insight not only into her union but her famous containment? Would she genuinely (finally) evolve creatively and personally?

The answer, honestly, is no.

In this slim tome and in the many interviews she’s conducted since its release, she acknowledges she writes because that is how she makes sense of her life. She has also acknowledged that she has looked forward to the flurry of distractions that the book publication has promised to provide her. All of which goes a long way toward explaining this slender volume’s stunned, stunted prose but not toward excusing it. I find this memoir genuinely alienating, even self-aggrandizing. In fact I resent it, just like I resent everyone’s piety in their treatment of it.

Didion is still the careful researcher, wading through written material about the process of grieving for–what? Insight into how she should behave? Into what she is feeling? Fodder to fill out her anorectic paragraphs? She studies psychological texts, consults poets. And she lingers longest on Emily Post’s etiquette manual on mourning, ostensibly because Post accepts death as a part of life. Really because Post regards grieving externally, providing practical instruction in the proper appearance of mourning. Didion is still very concerned with the surface of things, if only to approach her situation cautiously from the outside in. Still with that signature remove.

Perhaps as a result of writing those screenplays, Didion’s prose has grown increasingly cinematic, with observations neatly folded into anorectic paragraphs and a strange redundancy of phrases that do not substitute for the punch her earlier prose packed. The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception. No doubt because she wrote it in the first year after her husband’s death–a year crowned by the loss of her daughter, who surrendered to an illness about which Didion is also doggedly avoidant–she writes like a child tasting her own tears with numb wonderment. Even the repetition of that most shattering of sentences–“my husband is dead”– devolves into cliche rather than keening rhythm because it is married to no insight, delves no depths. I get the same feeling here as when I view Woody Allen’s movies: that this is art made to dissociate from the rigors of reality rather than as a bold effort to accept them.

Understand I do not condemn Didion for being shellshocked about losing her husband and child in the span of one year. I do, however, resent the brittle book she wrote about those events to avoid genuinely experiencing them. I resent that she did not have the courage to surrender to her grief before she took up a pen to write herself back into shape; I resent that she failed to use those losses as a way to connect to a larger context that for a very long time she has merely judged. As a reader, I feel..used. Transitional object in absentia.

For let me say it out loud. Her loss, though great, it is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, especially not in recent history. And even if it were, the sheer accounting of it would not merit publication. Many, many women have lost their families and not written books about it. Why Didion’s book could have been special is because she could have shed insight, with her characteristic finality, not into how she healed, for healing from great grief is not a finite process. But insight into how she got through the initial shock of it. Instead, she seems to have written this account of her husband’s death in an effort to not to get through it. Aptly titled, it reads as a (seemingly unsuccessful) meta-attempt to coax herself into believing it took place at all, the way an overtherapized person will tell you over and over that her parents abused her so she will believe it is true. I long for what Didion eventually might have authored had she not written this last year away in a dissociative, now overly lauded fugue. Or is that more magical thinking?

I don’t know Didion’s official stance on blogs, but I’m going to take a wild guess that she views them with disdain. And yet, what she’s written here embodies blogs’ worst qualities with none of their intimacy: Information introduced and reintroduced endlessly without ever fully being digested. To wit: Your husband is dead. By the way, your husband is dead. Your husband had heart trouble and you didn’t want to face up to that. Now he is dead and you don’t want to face up to that, either. Your daughter is dangerously ill for reasons you don’t want to unpack. Now she is dead, which you also won’t unpack. By the way, everyone is dead. By the way, the end.

How about: How will you go on? How have you gone on so far? What does your abyss look like, and what have you excavated from it? How will you find emotional and physical sustenance, and from whom? In recent interviews, you have confessed you didn’t like being single before you married Dunne. Do you know who you are separate from his embrace? Have you the courage to find out rather than subject us to ever-more brittle prose? Will you examine your meticulously unexamined life?

Her answer, at least according to this volume, is: not yet. My suggestion to the rest of us: Wait until she is. It still could be magic.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy