Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking Ain’t (Goodbye to) All That

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

I’ve always admired rather than identified with or even really embraced Didion. It seemed to me that 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 that roared beneath her Pappagallo flats; when she used her writing to both burrow into and explain away the most intense personal-is-political ethos of her generation. It was in that vein that “Goodbye to All That,” her essay about leaving NYC, was anthemic. Today it still speaks of a particularly fraught moment in time and of a very fraught cultural mood, as does the rest of the rightfully lauded Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But by her mid- and later career, when she was more firmly established critically, commercially, and, yes, domestically, her writing, always economical, grew sparse and sometimes even remote.

She’d always alluded to great feelings, even great passions, but in a way that never threatened to truly disrupt her prose. No menstrual blood stained her diction; no hysteria drew undue attention to individual paragraphs. She spurned the navel-gazing of her generation and purported to embrace action, movement, John Wayne types. But somehow that lack of a psychoanalytical impulse merely translated into an ever-cooler remove. 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. I appreciate any woman who doesn’t sing for her supper the way we’ve all been trained to do, but in the case of Didion, I appreciated her with a reserve that matched her own.

More and more, I suspect anatomy truly is destiny. Despite all my political and academic training, I’ve come to believe that the physical bodies we inherit and inhabit are blueprints for the kind of experiences we create or crave or fear. For even as online everything makes it increasingly possible to transcend our bodies, we are increasingly rooted in them, defined and even haunted by them. Or is it more that both are of a piece, that our written voices are in fact just another aspect 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 of mine and, I would argue, of many others, too.

Suffice it to say that 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. I’ve studied it to understand the high-tech mechanics that enabled her texts’ unruffled surfaces. I’ve even copied out passages from her books to experience what it’s like to write with such a powerful restraint. But although a rawness always lurks in between those carefully arranged lines, and although she proclaims great passions and has famously shunned the paralyzed introspection of her generation, there is something censorious, even stunted, in her economy that displeases me.

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

Which leads me to all the brouhaha that has greeted her recent publication. Although I still don’t know a ton of folks 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 magical altar of Didion with nary a negative word. 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 her new memoir because they feel protective of this fiercely slight woman? Are they drawn to her type of, as she writes with her characteristic irony, “cool customer?” As arguably our ideal lady writer, hers is a calm, collected feminity: no flab and no fuss. We can count on her, in other words, to not throw herself in her husband’s grave literally and literarily. She was the right kind of girl and is the right kind of woman. And now we are looking to her to be the right kind of widow.

For central to the glamourous intrigue that cloaks Didion like a mink has always been her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne. While the rest of America divorced and remarried and divorced again, Dunne and Didion worked and lived together, presiding over the American literary scene as the golden couple who straddled NYC hustle and Hollywood shuffle seemingly effortlessly. They wrote reviews and nonfiction and fiction and screenplays — sometimes together, sometimes separately but mostly, it was reported, in the same room. I must admit I wondered if the safety that union afforded her hampered her prose, if Dunne’s bluster allowed for Didion’s remove. Certainly their interdependence rendered her even more of an acceptable woman. For all detachment, she clearly leaned on Dunne to stand, as puts it in her book, in between her and the rest of the world. And while I am delving into un-Didion-like confessions, I must admit — I’m not proud of this — that when the news of Dunne’s death hit the wires I was not only genuinely sorry for his widow but curious to learn how she would negotiate that loss. I am guessing I am not the only one, which is another reason why her book has been so anxiously awaited. (Perhaps the breathless reviews are mere compensation gestures for that prurience.) Would her characteristically bloodless prose gain some color? Would the floodgates open, shedding some insight into not only her union but into her famous containment? Would she genuinely transform her 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 the resulting stunned prose. But not toward excusing it. I find this book genuinely alienating, even self-aggrandizing. 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? Insight into what she is feeling? Fodder to fill out her slender paragraphs? She studies psychological texts, consults poets. And she lingers longest on Emily Post’s practical advice about how to treat mourners, purportedly because Post accepts death as a matter of life. I think, however, it is because Post regards grieving from the outside, providing a handy how-to manual that not only teaches us how to treat mourners but also mourners how to behave. She is still very concerned with the surface of things, if only to approach her situation cautiously from the outside in. With, in other words, her characteristic remove.

Perhaps as a result of writing screenplays, Didion’s prose has grown increasingly cinematic, with observations neatly folded into slender paragraphs and a strange redundancy of phrases that do not subsititute for the punch her earlier prose packed. The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception. In fact, no doubt because she wrote it in the first year after her husband’s death, the same year in which her daughter slowing surrendered to a fatal illness, she repeats phrases rather than approach too closely any new essential truths. I get the same feeling when reading this book that I get when I view Woody Allen’s movies since he left Mia Farrow for her daughter (and his kids’ sister): that this is art made to dissociate from reality’s painful rigors rather than as a bold effort to accept them. I got the feeling when reading this that Didion hasn’t even begun to really grapple with the reality of what it means to have lost Dunne. That she is tasting her phrases with the same numb wonderment that a weeping child has when she tastes her tears.

Understand I do not condemn Didion for being shellshocked by losing her husband and child in the span of one year. I do, however, slightly condemn her for writing a brittle book about those events rather than genuinely experiencing them. I resent that she did not have the courage to surrender to her grief before she took up her pen to whip herself back into shape; I resent that she failed to use those losses as a way to join and connect her to a larger context that she has for a very long time merely just observed. What could have been interesting, and why I bought the book, would have been a book about the creative and emotional transformation she embarked upon as a result of these terrible events, And it doesn’t count if that journey is mostly just the writing of this book.

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 have not written books about it. Why Didion’s book could have been special is because she could have shed insight, with her characteristic finality, into how she got through it. Instead, she seems to have written the book about her husband’s death in order to even believe that it took place — the way, ironically, an overtherapized person will tell you over and over that her parents abused her while she’s trying herself that it is true. I would have liked to read the book she might have written in a few years had she not written this last year away.

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 manifests blogs’ worst qualities with none of their intimacy: Information is introduced and reintroduced endlessly without ever fully being digested. To wit: Your husband is dead. By the way, your husband is dead. Your daughter is dangerously ill. Your husband had heart trouble and you didn’t want to face up to it. Now he is dead and you don’t want to face up to that, either. And, yes, your husband is dead. By the way, the end.

How about: How will you go on? How have you gone on so far? What will you do now? 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 put down your pen and find out rather than subject us to ever-more brittle prose, o Joan?

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

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