Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity. (3)
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s most recent work of non-fiction, details her efforts at grappling with the loss of both her husband (author John Gregory Dunne) and her adult daughter within the span of several months. It is a particularly brave and candid work coming from a writer known primarily for her finely crafted and often emotionally opaque prose. In many respects this book works well as a counterpart to her last book, Where I Was From, as the latter book details Didion’s outer history (both literal and metaphorical) while Magical Thinking details her inner history.
A book such as this could easily turn into an act of exploitation (think of her quote from the late '60s that “writers are always selling somebody out”), yet she instead lets us into her world to observe how one individual works her way through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grieving. Despite Didion’s disdain for universal themes, her book is one to which many people will relate. Whether it is the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or any jarring emotional event, we have all experienced the process of 'magical thinking', one typically associated with mental illness but also with trauma. In a chaotic and unpredictable world, people try to impose order and restore peace of mind in seemingly absurd ways. An unemployed man showers, puts on his suit and leaves the house at the ordinary time for fear that if he breaks the routine, he will go crazy. A grieving spouse refuses to give away any of their beloved’s clothes out of fear that in doing so, that person might not come back. A jilted lover avoids places associated with the relationship for fear of triggering a flood of emotion. Mostly these routines are a secret process, behaviors and emotions we try to conceal from others. In opening up, Didion reveals a universal facet of the human experience and shows us what being human is all about, no easy feat in a world intent on instant gratification and the denial of any unpleasant emotions. Perhaps we never really get over a tragedy, but we can at least be honest about it, if only for our own well-being.
I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself. (8-9)